A start-up called Darwin Life has released plans to use a controversial fertility technique to help women in their 40s get pregnant for a sum of $100,000.
The pioneer of the company is John Zhang, founder of a New York City clinic called New Hope Fertility Centre; he has developed the technology in what is being called “spindle nuclear transfer.”
Branded as a “cure for infertility”, the company will offer its services to women aged 42 to 47, an age at which the chance of becoming pregnant declines dramatically.
Originally developed as a way to prevent women from passing certain rare diseases on to their children, Zhang’s new method employs delicate hollow needles to swap the chromosomes of a woman’s egg into the eggs of a donor.
The process is deemed inappropriate due to it being largely untested and because some consider it a form of genetic modification. Some of you may remember back in March, after a lengthy public debate, the UK became the first country to formally allow the use of a similar treatment, but only when a couple is at a very high risk of having a child with a life threatening genetic disease.
The technique remains illegal in the U.S., and Zhang says Darwin Life will only offer the service overseas for now, and announces the company are assessing a handful of hopeful women who may benefit.
The formation of the company is also alarming some observers, who say the process is too new to commercialise widely and could create increased demand or donors to supply eggs.
This is a biologically extreme and risky procedure,” said Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Centre for Genetics and Society, a group that questions advances in biotechnology. “If you’re talking about using these techniques for age-related infertility, that’s really moving the human experimentation to a very large scale.”
In a document filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Darwin Life, incorporated at the same New York City location as Zhang’s clinic, said it had raised $1 million in an initial round of funding. Zhang declined to identify the investors.
The “three parent baby” technique consists of combining one woman’s genes with the youthful contents of another’s egg, notably energy-making structures called mitochondria – this possesses its own small number of genes, with the child having three genetic parents in the end.
Zhang believes his technique of harnessing a young egg will help infertility, as faulty mitochondria are a reason why older women can’t produce viable embryos.
A previous performance of this technique, amid concerns of “designer babies” led Congress to forbid the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from considering research application involving any type of genetically modified embryos, including those made with the nuclear transfer technique.