London, July 4: Designing babies genetically selected to save the life of a brother or sister with a fatal disease is an acceptable practice, doctors have agreed.
They argued that it was their duty as doctors to use the methods newly available to help patients, provided each case was taken on an individual basis.
The debate at the British Medical Association annual conference in Torquay follows the high court appeal in which the Hashmi family won the right to undergo pre-implantation selection.
Another family, the Whittakers, were refused permission and went to the US for treatment.
The difference between the cases was that the Hashmis ran a high risk of having another baby with the same blood disorder as their child Zain. In the Whittakers’ case, their son, Charlie, had a condition which was not hereditary.
In both cases, it was intended that cord blood from the new, selected baby would be harvested for bone marrow stem cells to help the existing brother.
“We do not have the right to turn down treatment to someone when it is possible,” Dr Peter Dangerfield, a lecturer at Liverpool University, said.
“To use cells to save a person’s life is the most important thing we can do. If we do not do this, we run the risk of this sort of treatment going on overseas and in back rooms where we have no ethical control over it.
“This must be done on a case by case basis. We are talking about offering a glimmer of hope to someone who would otherwise die,” Dangerfield said.
But Dr Gregory Gardner of Birmingham said: “The killing of unsuitable embryos and the favourable selection of suitable ones is eugenics with a vengeance. The truth about siblings born for Zain Hashmi and Charlie Whittaker is that they are allowed to be born only on the condition that they are able to supply stem cells or bone marrow for older siblings. If they don’t fit this category they are disposed of.”
Dr Vivienne Nathanson said after the debate that in these two cases only cord blood was to be taken. “We would be more concerned if it was bone marrow, which is a painful and risky procedure,” she said.