Putting Baby Together
By Jamie Talan
October 14, 2003
Three years after the federal government put restrictions on two New York doctors developing a controversial fertility technique and the scientists shared their technology with Chinese doctors, the method has been used to achieve a pregnancy in a 30-year-old infertile Chinese woman.
But none of her three developing fetuses survived, and some question the ethics of such research.
"The gestational outcome was a disaster," said Dr. James Grifo, director of the division of reproductive endocrinology at New York University. Grifo and his NYU colleague, Dr. John Zhang, are listed on the abstract of a paper on the case to be delivered today at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine meeting in Texas. Grifo said they didn't have anything to do with the clinical research "beyond showing them how to do it."
"We laid all the foundation for them to do this, and we taught them how," Grifo said. Zhang will deliver the talk because his colleagues at the Sun Yat-Sen University of Medical Science in Guangzhou, China, did not get their visas in time, Grifo added.
This week, the Chinese government published guidelines forbidding the technique there as well.
Some call the technology controversial because one of the techniques used to fuse the genetic material from an infertile woman into an egg that has been cleared of DNA in its nucleus is also used in cloning. That technique is called nuclear transfer.
"It utilizes a similar technology but in no way resembles cloning," Grifo said in a telephone interview yesterday. Cloning is the science of copying an adult with its complete set of DNA.
With the NYU researchers's approach, the mother's nucleus is infused in the lab into the female donor's healthy cytoplasm and the high-tech egg is fertilized with the husband's sperm and then re-implanted in the infertile woman's womb. This allows the woman and her male partner to have a child that is genetically related to both of them, said Grifo. The child also inherits some mitochondrial DNA from the donated cytoplasm.
With normal in vitro procedures, Grifo said, an infertile woman often carries a donor egg that has none of her genetic characteristics.
Grifo and his colleagues stopped developing the technique in 1999 after the hospital received a letter from the Food and Drug Administration saying the scientists needed to file the equivalent of a New Drug Application to do these studies. Grifo said they didn't have the funds or the time to invest so they stopped testing it. Instead, they turned the technique over to Chinese colleagues.
In the China pregnancy, one of the three embryos was removed to cut the risk of the pregnancy, one fetus was delivered stillborn at 24 weeks and the last died at 29 weeks when the blood supply in utero was cut off. But even with the disastrous outcome, Grifo said, the Chinese team found that all three fetuses were genetically normal.
"The notion of rejuvenating an egg is interesting," said Arthur Caplan, head of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "It is certainly not cloning, but it is a form of genetic engineering. You are altering the genetic nature of the offspring. It shouldn't happen in the U.S., China or anywhere without a lot more research and a lot more debate."
"If you create one dying or dead baby, you could set back the effort for years," Caplan added.
Pregnancy Through Science
A Chinese experiment has created a human pregnancy through nuclear transfer, a process that combined DNA from a would-be mother with hollowed-out eggs from a donor.
1. DNA is removed from the egg of the donor.
2. The hollowed-out egg is fused with DNA taken from ther mother's egg.
3. The egg is then fertilized by the father's sperm.
4. Five such fertilized eggs, or zygotes, are implanted in the mother's womb.
Copyright (c) 2003, Newsday, Inc.
This article originally appeared at:
Pregnancy Created With Egg Nucleus of Infertile Woman
October 14, 2003
Doctors in China have become the
first to make an infertile woman pregnant with
an experimental technique devised in
The technique involves removing the
nucleus, which contains the genetic material, from a woman's
fertilized egg and
Although researchers at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou succeeded last year in impregnating a 30-year-old woman with the technique, she gave birth prematurely and the twin fetuses she was carrying died. Although the process, nuclear transfer, was legal at the time in China, it was recently banned there.
Critics say the technique is
perilously close to human cloning, which has
been widely condemned, although there is
Doctors involved in the research say
it is not cloning but simply an effort to give
infertile women a chance to have
A report on the experiment in China
is to be presented today at a medical
conference in San Antonio. It was
To make a clone, like Dolly the
sheep, researchers start with a fertilized egg
and remove its nucleus. Then they
Nuclear transfer and cloning are
similar in that both involve taking the
nucleus from one cell and slipping it
Dr. James Grifo, who developed the
procedure at New York University and
tried it in 1998 on several patients who did
"Cloning is making a copy of a human
being who already exists," Dr. Grifo said in a
telephone interview yesterday.
In China, Dr. Zhuang Guanglun, one of
the researchers, said in an interview: "This
isn't cloning. Cloning involves
Dr. Grifo said the twin fetuses that
died in the experiment had no evidence of
genetic defects or other problems from
Dr. Guanglun said, "The problem was
when an infection set in, but that doesn't
negate the success of the initial
He said the research was banned because it was thought to be too similar to cloning.
He called China's regulations
"nonsense for people who don't understand
these techniques," and added, "When it's
Dr. Grifo said he and his colleagues
gave their findings to doctors in China
because regulations imposed by the United
Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, director of the
center for bioethics at the University of
Minnesota in Minneapolis, said he found
"My concern is that people see this
as an end run around oversight and
restrictions within the United States," Dr.
"What's next?" he asked. "A ship out in international waters?"
Dr. Kahn also said that even though
nuclear transfer was not the same as cloning,
it helped demonstrate that cloning
At the same time, Dr. Kahn said,
stopping the research could have the effect of
penalizing infertile people who
Dr. Grifo said he had worked on the
technique from 1995 to 1998 with consent from
patients and the permission of New
He said his goal was to help women
whose eggs became fertilized but then stopped
developing, a problem mostly
Now, the only way such women can have
children is to adopt or to become pregnant
with an egg from a donor. Nuclear
But in 2001, the F.D.A. declared that
it had jurisdiction over nuclear
transfer and related research, and that
That move put an end to nuclear
transfer work in the United States, Dr. Grifo
said. He said the application process -
Dr. Grifo said that he and Dr. John
Zhang, a graduate student from China studying
with him, decided to give their
"We didn't perform the research, but we gave them the tools so they could do it," Dr. Grifo said.
Dr. Grifo and Dr. Zhang are named as
co-authors on a summary of the research, and
Dr. Zhang is presenting it
Dr. Grifo said, "We knew patients would benefit, and we did not want to see the research die."