Her Son Is One Of The Few Children To Have 3 Parents' DNA

Jun 6, 2018
Originally published on June 8, 2018 2:19 pm

On the third floor of a big Soviet-era apartment building in Kharkiv, Ukraine, the mother of one of the world's first babies created with DNA from three different people cracks open her door.

"Hello; my name is Tamara," she whispers, to avoid waking her son from his nap.

Her name isn't really Tamara. She asked me to call her that to protect her family's privacy. She knows how unusual — and controversial — her baby might be to some people.

Doctors at the Nadiya Clinic in Kiev, which created her baby, arranged for Tamara to become the first mother of a "three-parent baby" to give an interview to a journalist.

After settling down at the kitchen table in her cramped, tidy apartment near the Russian border, Tamara starts telling her story. She's 31 and always wanted kids.

"Six years ago, I met my husband and in six months we started our tries to bring a child," she says, speaking through an interpreter.

But she couldn't get pregnant. So she went through round after round of in vitro fertilization, year after year. It was a grueling, emotional roller coaster. And nothing worked.

"I was quite sad. And at some moments I even lost my hope," she says. "But then you find some forces in yourself and some emotions. Because to have a child is a goal which you couldn't drop."

Then she heard about the clinic in Kiev. Doctors there told her about something new. "They showed us pictures for how many genes the child would have" from the three parents, she says.

The doctors would fertilize one of her eggs with her husband's sperm. Next, they would use her husband's sperm to fertilize an egg from another woman paid to donate eggs. And then the scientists would remove most of the DNA from the other woman's fertilized egg, and replace it with Tamara's and her husband's.

"My first reaction was: 'Whoa! How [has] science got so far?' " she says. "It's unbelievable that they can make such a stuff. It's wonderful and unbelievable."

The idea is that something in the egg from the other woman might make the difference. That something could be a tiny bit of genetic material known as mitochondrial DNA. These 37 genes provide the blueprint for mitochondria, the powerhouses inside cells that provide energy for the egg and embryo.

The technique was originally developed to help women who are carrying devastating genetic disorders caused by defects in mitochondrial DNA avoid passing those genes on to their offspring.

Tamara's baby would have DNA from three different people: Tamara, her husband and the woman who donated the egg. But that didn't bother the couple.

"I knew that that tiny little bit of DNA is not responsible for such crucial stuff as your eyes color, your hair, your character and all [the] other important stuff," she says of the donor's DNA. It seemed, she says, "not very important for [the] child's appearance and his character, his mentality."

So the couple decided to do it. And it worked. For the first time in her life, Tamara was able to create a healthy embryo, get pregnant, hear her baby's heart beating in her womb and eventually give birth to a baby.

"It was a lot of smiles. A lot of tears of happiness. I can't describe it," she says. "It's how ... happiness feels."

Her son is now 15 months old.

"I'm so excited. I have a child. And he's so beautiful. He smiles to me. He's so cute. He's so smart. He looks like my mom," she says.

While Tamara is thrilled with the outcome, there are big worries about the procedure and its long-term effects. The biggest one: Is it safe? Her son seems perfectly healthy so far. But who knows what might show up months or years from now? Where might routine use of this method lead?

"This is the first time a human being is being created this way," says Jeffrey Kahn, director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Kahn chaired a U.S. National Academy of Sciences panel that examined the science and ethical issues raised by the three-parent procedure.

"We just don't know if it's safe," he says. "This is an uncontrolled experiment in which women are being offered a new technology that's never been tried before. That's why it's a concern."

Kahn's panel concluded it could be ethical to try the procedure to try to prevent mitochondrial disease. But it is prohibited in the United States. So a doctor from a New York clinic traveled to Mexico to help a Jordanian couple conceive a child this way.

Britain has just started letting doctors try it very carefully, one baby at a time, but only to see if this might be a safe way to avoid the genetic disorders.

Tamara is one of four women at the Nadiya Clinic who have given birth this way, according to Dr. Valery Zukin, who heads the clinic. Three more women are pregnant, including a woman from Sweden, he says.

The procedure also raises deeper questions.

"What is the importance of the contribution of mitochondrial DNA from a stranger? Philosophically it's an interesting question," Kahn says. "It changes your ancestry in a way."

But that's not the only concern. The egg donor's mitochondrial DNA could be passed down by any girls born from the procedure. So any problems inadvertently created could be passed down for generations too.

"That's crossing what had been a bright-line prohibition all across the globe that we would not introduce genetic modifications that would be passed on to future offspring in perpetuity," Kahn says.

In fact, one of the four babies produced so far with the help of the clinic was a girl, Zukin says.

And some worry that allowing scientists to make inheritable genetic modifications for this purpose could open the door to letting them do it for other reasons.

"There are fears that we are moving down the slippery slope towards designer babies," says Naomi Cahn, a professor of law at the George Washington University School of Law, referring to parents picking and choosing the traits of their children.

Zukin, the head of the Kiev clinic, dismisses those concerns. He says every baby born so far this way appears to be perfectly healthy.

Ukrainian women pay about $8,000 to the Nadiya Clinic for the procedure. The clinic is charging women from other countries about $15,000. And the clinic has partnered with the New York clinic to market the procedure to U.S. women.

Tamara says the newness of the approach didn't deter her.

"I had no doubts," Tamara says. "We had no doubts. I wanted a child so hard that I didn't care about how ... experimental the procedure would be."

She is just thrilled to have a baby. "In my point of view, if you can fix something you should fix it," she says.

Just as we're leaving, Tamara's son wakes up from his nap. My microphone scares him.

"He's always afraid of new people," Tamara says. "I'm sorry, but we're shy for now at this age."

I can't help but wonder whether Tamara ever thinks about the fact that her son is one of the first human beings in the world who have DNA from three different people.

"Yes, of course it's still important," she says. "But at the end, we are all children of Adam and Eve. So we are all connected."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Women from around the world have started going to a clinic in Ukraine hoping to get pregnant. The clinic is doing something that no one else in the world will do for them - make babies using DNA from three different people. Earlier today on Morning Edition, NPR health correspondent Rob Stein took us inside the clinic to see how doctors create these children. Now, in an exclusive report, Rob introduces us to one of the world's first three-parent mothers and her son. Rob is the first journalist to interview one of these parents.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: To meet this baby and his mom, I take the train from Kiev five hours west to a city near the Russian border.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In few minutes, we will arrive at our final destination, city of Kharkiv.

STEIN: I make my way to a big Soviet-era apartment building on the outskirts of town. Kids are running around a school playground next door. As I go inside and start walking up to the third floor, my interpreter reminds me that the baby is probably napping.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Right here we need to be a little bit quiet.

STEIN: Oh, is the baby sleeping?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Yeah, the baby's sleeping.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

STEIN: The mother of one of only a handful of three-parent babies in the world cracks open the door to her tiny apartment.

Hello.

TAMARA: Hello.

STEIN: I'm Rob Stein from NPR.

TAMARA: OK. My name is Tamara.

STEIN: Her name isn't really Tamara. She's using that to protect her privacy and her sons'. She knows how unusual and controversial her baby might be to some people.

TAMARA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Take your shoes off.

STEIN: Take my shoes off? OK.

TAMARA: Because little children.

STEIN: The shoes are lined up neatly on a rack in the entrance way next to a baby stroller. We tiptoe past the son's room over to the kitchen table. It's just her and her son at home today. Her husband's at work. After we settle in, Tamara starts telling me her story. She's 31 and always wanted kids.

TAMARA: (Through interpreter) Six years ago, I met my husband. And in six months, we started to - we tried to bring a child. And that attempt failed.

STEIN: She went through round after round of IVF for years. It was a grueling emotional rollercoaster. Nothing worked.

TAMARA: (Through interpreter) I was quite sad. And some moment I even lost my hope, and at some moments - or even think about I should drop all this thing. But then you find some forces in yourself and some emotions because to have a child is goal which you couldn't drop.

STEIN: Then she heard about a clinic in Kiev where doctors told her about something new.

TAMARA: (Through interpreter) They explained us the procedure, its stages. And they showed us pictures for how many genes the child would have from mother, father. And all this unique stuff they explained us properly.

STEIN: The doctors would fertilize one of her eggs with her husband's sperm, then use her husband's sperm to fertilize an egg from another woman paid to donate her eggs. Next, remove most of the DNA from the other woman's fertilized egg and replace it with Tamara and her husband's genes.

TAMARA: (Through interpreter) My first reaction - whoa, how science got so far. It's unbelievable that they can make such stuff. It's wonderful and unbelievable.

STEIN: The idea is that a tiny bit of DNA left over from the other woman might make the difference. It provides energy for the egg and embryo. But the resulting baby would have DNA from three different people - Tamara, her husband and the woman who donated the egg. But that didn't bother Tamara or her husband.

TAMARA: (Through interpreter) I knew that that tiny little bit of DNA is not responsible for such crucial stuff as your eyes' color, your hair, your character and all other important stuff. It's very tiny part of DNA which seemed not very important for child appearance and his character, his mentality.

STEIN: And it worked. For the first time in her life, she was able to get pregnant, hear her baby's heart beating in her womb and give birth to a baby.

TAMARA: (Through interpreter) It was a lot of smiles, a lot of tears of happiness. I can't describe it. It's how happiness feels.

STEIN: She never told most people in her life about how her son came to be. He's now 15 months old.

TAMARA: (Through interpreter) I'm so excited I have a child. And he's so beautiful. He smiles to me. He's so cute. He's so smart. He looks like my mom.

STEIN: But there are big worries about this. The biggest one - is it safe? Her son seems perfectly healthy so far, but who knows what might show up months or years from now? The procedure is banned in the United States, so one New York doctor went to Mexico to make a baby this way. Britain has just started letting doctors try it very carefully, one baby at a time, and only to see if this might be a safe way to prevent terrible genetic disorders. Tamara says she wasn't bothered about how new and untested the procedure is.

TAMARA: (Through interpreter) I had no doubts. We had no doubts. I wanted a child so hard that I didn't care about how much experimental the procedure would be.

STEIN: But that's not all. The donor's DNA could be passed down to future generations by any girls born this way, so any problems could be passed down for generations, too. And some worry making inheritable genetic modifications like this could open the door to designer babies. Tamara isn't worried about any of that either. She's just thrilled to finally have a baby.

TAMARA: (Through interpreter) In my point of view, if you can fix something, you should fix it.

STEIN: Tamara paid about $8,000 - a lot of money in Ukraine. The clinic's charging women from other countries about $15,000, which is about as much as IVF usually costs in the United States. The clinic says they've created four healthy babies this way, and three more women are pregnant, including a woman from Sweden. And they've formed a company with a New York clinic to market the service to American women. As we wrap up the interview in Tamara's apartment, her son wakes up from his nap.

Hello, you cutie.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

STEIN: My microphone scares him.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: I'm sorry, but we're shy for now at this age.

STEIN: No, I totally understand.

She tries jingling her keys to cheer up.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

STEIN: I'm sorry.

Just as we're leaving. I can't help but ask, does she ever think about the fact that her son's one of the first human beings in the world with DNA from three different people?

TAMARA: (Through interpreter) Yes, of course it's still important. But at the end we are all children of Adam and Eve, so we are all connected.

STEIN: She says she's not sure if she'll ever tell her son about how he came to be. She might. She's just not sure. Rob Stein, NPR News, Kharkiv, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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