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Woman pregnant with baby selected to avoid childhood cancer

15 May 2006
Appeared in BioNews 358

The UK's Times newspaper has revealed that a British woman is pregnant with the UK's first baby conceived to be free from an inherited childhood cancer. Last August, doctors at University College Hospital (UCH), London, were granted a licence by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which enabled them to test embryos for retinoblastoma, a rare form of inherited eye cancer.

At the time the licence was granted, four couples were signed up to try and use PGD to try and avoid passing on the genetic condition to their children. The news of the licence came a week after the HFEA revealed its plans to launch a public consultation on the use of PGD to test for late-onset and 'lower penetrance' genetic disorders. Now, the news that one of the women is pregnant with a baby free of the condition comes in the same week that the HFEA announced that it has given the go-ahead for couples to test embryos to avoid passing on forms of hereditary breast, ovarian and colon cancer, which have lower penetrance and tend to affect adults rather than children.

PGD involves taking a single cell from a 2-4 day old embryo created using IVF performing a genetic or chromosome test on that cell, and then returning one or two unaffected embryos to the womb. Retinoblastoma is a cancer of the retina caused by a mutation in a gene called RB1. People with this faulty gene have a 50 per cent chance of passing it on to any child, and it causes tumours in 90 per cent of those who inherit it. Affected people also have a greatly increased risk of developing another type of cancer during their lifetime. Licensing PGD for retinoblastoma was a step up from what the procedure was originally allowed for - since PGD became possible, it had only ever been licensed in the UK for genes that cause disease in 100 per cent of those carrying it.

The woman, who is unnamed, is said to be in the early stages of her pregnancy and 'elated'. While she and her husband were not infertile, so did not need to use IVF to have a baby, using IVF procedures in conjunction with PGD means that her child is both free from the condition and will avoid passing on the disease to any future generations. Paul Serhal, a fertility specialist from UCH, who treated the couple, said that 'what we have shown is the technology works'. He added 'no one has done it in the UK before - we are the first centre doing this kind of work'. Following last week's announcement by the HFEA, Mr Serhal is now planning to apply for a licence to treat a patient at risk of passing on a mutated version of the BRCA1 breast cancer gene.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
First baby in Britain designed cancer-free
The Times |  13 May 2006
Screening will detect blindness gene in embryos
The Times |  13 May 2006
We had to go abroad to get our baby screened
The Daily Telegraph |  15 May 2006
Woman pregnant with baby 'designed' to defeat cancer
The Scotsman |  13 May 2006
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