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New Push for In Utero Gene Transfer

Genetic Crossroads
December 7th, 2000

British and US researchers have begun a new push for approval of gene
transfer trials in human fetuses. Such "in utero" procedures would very
likely affect the developing eggs or sperm of the fetus, introducing
germline changes that would be passed on to all subsequent generations.

The New Scientist, a British magazine, reports that in utero gene
transfer "was a hot topic among delegates to the Millennium Festival of
Medicine in London last month." It named Charles Coutelle, a researcher
at the Imperial College School of Medicine in London and Janet Larson of
the Ochsner Medical Foundation in New Orleans as two scientists who are
experimenting with such procedures in animals. Coutelle says his team
could be ready for trials in human fetuses in four or five years.

Because of the risk of germline alterations, gene therapy on human
fetuses is effectively banned in Britain. In the US , the National
Institutes of Health said in 1999 that it will not consider proposals
for procedures that could modify the human germline "at this time."
This decision was in response to a proposal for in utero gene transfer
by W. French Anderson, who led the campaign for approval of somatic
gene therapy in the late 1980s and has long argued that germline
manipulation is an appropriate medical procedure.

The New Scientist quoted several scientists who strongly oppose gene
transfer in human fetuses. "My concern is that we don't know what we're
doing," said John Bell, head of clinical medicine at Oxford University.
"Maybe it will be acceptable in a thousand years' time, but not today."

Developmental biologist Stuart Newman of New York Medical College and
the Council for Responsible Genetics said he suspects that some people
may be downplaying concerns about in utero gene transfers in order to
soften up public opinion and pave the way for germline engineering.

(Joanna Marchant, "Generation game: If gene therapy in the womb could
cure common diseases, what's the problem?," New Scientist 12/2/00.)


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