Designing babies or saving lives in Mexico?

By Katy Watson
BBC Mexico and Central America reporter

image copyrightAP
image captionDr Alejandro Chavez-Badiola says the controversial procedure has been misrepresented

The headlines earlier this week that a baby had been born using DNA from three people got the world very excited - no more so than in Mexico, where the technique was carried out.

The boy was born five months ago. His Jordanian parents travelled to the New Hope Fertility Center in New York.

Two of their children had previously died from Leigh Syndrome which is a disorder passed on through genetic defects in mitochondria carried by the mother.

The doctors used a method that takes all the vital DNA from the mother's egg plus healthy mitochondria from a donor egg to create a new egg that's then fertilised with the father's sperm.

While the little boy isn't the first baby to be created by combining DNA from three people, the method used is a new and significant one that experts say could help families with rare genetic conditions to conceive healthy babies.

Controversial technique

But it's not such an easy solution. While specialists are calling it breakthrough technology, critics of assisted reproductive technology (ART) warn doctors about playing God.

The US team at New Hope Fertility Clinic in New York, led by Dr John Zhang, had to travel to their Mexico clinic in Guadalajara to carry out the procedure, which is effectively banned in the United States.

Dr Alejandro Chavez-Badiola heads up the Mexico clinic and worked with Dr Zhang on the procedure.

He says the procedure has been misrepresented in the media since the story broke.

"This is not three-parent IVF, it's very sophisticated technology that's aiming to save lives, not to tailor-make babies," he told the BBC. "It doesn't make you who you are. It doesn't give you your temperament, your height, your skin colour, whether you have curly hair."

He suggests people look at it in a different way.

"Imagine you received a liver transplant," he says. "You don't have the DNA from three people, you have your own DNA, you just have another structure within your body and that's the liver. So imagine this more like a transplant rather than messing with genetic information."

image copyrightNew Hope Fertility Center
image captionDr John Zhang holding the baby boy who was conceived thanks to the new technique that incorporates DNA from three people

In February 2015, the UK passed laws to allow the creation of babies from three people. In Mexico, there is no legal framework for it, but there are no laws prohibiting it.

Some critics accuse the doctors of being irresponsible for choosing to carry out the procedure there because of the lack of regulations.

But that paints an unjust picture of Mexico's medical environment, according to Dr Chavez-Badiola. He says they followed all the regulations that applied to them.

No federal laws

Mexico has plenty of rules and regulations that oversee medical practices, clinics and hospitals "particularly if they are dealing with tissues, anaesthesia, patients and interventions," says Dr Sandra Gonzalez Santos, a specialist in assisted reproduction in Mexico and an external researcher for the University Bioethics Programme at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

But when it comes to federal regulation governing assisted reproductive technology, Mexico has nothing.

This is not for a lack of trying.

"Since 1999 there have been twenty-plus efforts to try and regulate this in a variety of ways and in a variety of combinations of different political parties," Dr Gonzalez Santos says.

"They haven't been fully passed. We don't have a fully-functional comprehensive specific law because it's a difficult thing and there are a lot of debates going on and a lot of interests going on too."

But Dr Jesus Lujan Irastorza, a gynaecologist and specialist in reproductive biology at the Bite Medica hospital in Mexico City, sees regulation as the next logical step.

He doesn't think the new technology is something that can be fought or banned.

"When someone dares to do something like this, demonstrating you can have a healthy baby, it's a process that's inevitable, you can't stop it," he says.

Regulations will be implemented, he adds, but "it's all a matter of time".

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