A Belfast woman has given birth to the first 'saviour sibling' conceived in the UK: a baby girl who could help treat her seriously ill three-year-old brother. In September 2004, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) granted Joe and Julie Fletcher permission to have a tissue-matched baby to help treat Joshua, who has an incurable blood disorder. Following successful treatment at the Assisted Reproduction and Gynaecology Centre in London, Mrs Fletcher gave birth to daughter Jodie on 14 July.
Joshua Fletcher has Diamond Blackfan anaemia (DBA), a rare blood condition that could be cured with a blood stem cell transplant from a tissue-matched donor. Having failed to find a suitable existing donor, his parents applied to use preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to conceive an IVF (in vitro fertilisation) baby who would be able to provide Joshua with compatible umbilical cord blood cells. If transplanted to Joshua, these cells could enable his body to produce its own healthy red blood cells. Doctors collected cord blood cells immediately after the birth of Jodie Fletcher, who should be a perfect genetic match for her brother.
The transplant will not happen for at least another six months, however, since doctors must first wait and see if Jodie is also affected by DBA. Some cases of DBA are caused by a mutation in a gene called RPS19, but for most the trigger remains unknown. For this reason it was not possible for the Fletchers to use PGD to select an embryo that would definitely be free from the condition. However, the couple are optimistic that the stem cell treatment will take place next year. 'My instinct tells me that the transplant will go ahead', said Mr Fletcher, adding 'the thought of having a Joshua who doesn't have DBA fills me with joy. It's like someone telling you that in 12 months you are going to win the lottery'. But for the time being, the family are simply enjoying their new baby. Mrs Fletcher said that Jodie was 'just as important for herself', adding 'she is another baby in our family, one we wanted anyway'.
The HFEA's decision to allow the Fletchers to conceive a tissue-matched baby followed the authority's recent policy change in this area, allowing couples to use PGD for testing IVF embryos solely to check their suitability as a potential cord blood donor for an existing sick child. Although Jodie Fletcher is the first potential saviour sibling conceived in the UK, another British baby has already helped his older brother in this way. In 2002, the HFEA turned down a request from the Whitaker family, who were also seeking to use PGD to conceive a tissue-matched baby to help a sibling with DBA. Michelle and Jayson Whitaker later travelled to Chicago to conceive their son James, born in June 2003, whose umbilical cord blood has now been successfully used to help treat their son Charlie.