KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
And now a story about some controversial medical research. Scientists want to create babies that would be born with DNA from three different people. The National Academy of Sciences today said experiments could proceed ethically, even though it raises many sensitive issues. Then, the Food and Drug Administration said it could not let that happen. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us in the studio to sort this out. And, Rob, let's start off with some basics here. What exactly do scientists want to do here and why?
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Well, Kelly, this is all aimed at trying to help certain women have healthy babies. And these are women who have defects in a tiny but really important kind of DNA known as mitochondrial DNA. And this DNA - defects in this DNA can cause some terrible diseases, so scientists want to do what you could sort of think of as a DNA transplant on eggs in the laboratory to help these women. What they would do is they would replace this defective DNA with healthy DNA from eggs donated by other women. And then these eggs would be fertilized in a laboratory with sperm, and that would allow women to have children that would have mostly all of their genes and all the genes that most people think are important - the genes from how we look, like how tall we are and what our eye color is and hair color is.
MCEVERS: I mean, as we said, though, this is pretty controversial, right?
STEIN: It's really controversial for lots of reasons. And the first one is this would be the first time that anybody's ever tried this sort of thing in people. So a big question is, you know, is it safe? And then, another question is what you raised in the introduction, which is these - any kids born this way would have DNA from three different people - from the woman who donated the healthy mitochondrial DNA, from the woman who's trying to have the healthy baby and from the man whose sperm is used to fertilize the egg in the laboratory. And that raises all kinds of issues about identity. I mean, these would be the first people in the world created this way. What would these kids think about themselves, who they are, who their parents are?
MCEVERS: Right. I mean, even if the babies were then born healthy by using this method, are there longer-term issues that we might think about - need to think about?
STEIN: Yeah, sure. Actually, the really big concern about all this is that this would be the first time that scientists would be allowed to make changes in human DNA that could be passed down for generations. That's never been allowed before. That's been considered off-limits, you know - and - because, you know - but in this case, any women who have female children born - created this way will then pass this mix of genes on to any future women that are born this way and so on so forth for future generations. And that raises all kinds of concerns. A big one is that, you know, scientists could make some sort of mistake...
STEIN: ...and introduce some new disease into the human gene pool or that scientists could try to do this for other reasons - nonmedical reasons, like create designer babies where parents pick the traits of their children.
MCEVERS: Oh, boy.
STEIN: And that starts to raise all kinds of issues about genetically engineering the human race.
MCEVERS: Yeah. I mean, as we mentioned, the National Academy of Sciences today said experiments could proceed despite the sensitivity and the controversy. Why did it look at this, and what else did it say?
STEIN: Yeah. So what happened is there are these scientists in New York and Oregon who asked the FDA if they could do this. The FDA started to look at it and realized they'd raised all these really vexing issues and so decided it should ask the National Academy of Sciences for some guidance. The academy took a deep dive into the issue and today came back with its conclusions, which is that, yes, it could be ethically permissible to pursue this research, but only very carefully. And what they mean by that is you'd have to do a lot of research first to make sure it's safe, and they also suggested that you only start by doing this to create male offspring. And males could not pass these mix of genes onto future offspring...
MCEVERS: Oh, OK.
STEIN: ...So that would sidestep all these scary issues we've been talking about.
MCEVERS: Very quickly - what happens now?
STEIN: So, you know, the scientists who want to do this were thrilled by this recommendation. They thought it could finally allow them to help these women who are plagued by these terrible diseases, but the FDA came in and reminded everybody that the latest federal budget has language that specifically prohibits them from even considering this. So it's all in limbo, for now at least.
MCEVERS: That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thanks so much.
STEIN: Oh, sure. Thanks for having me.
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