John Zhang has started a company to offer a new “three-parent” fertility procedure to hopeful older mothers.
The Fertility Doctor Offering to Rejuvenate Eggs for $100,000
A startup called Darwin Life says it will use a controversial fertility technique to help forty-somethings get pregnant.
AU.S. fertility doctor has started a company with a provocative vision for older women: become pregnant by having their DNA shifted into a young woman’s egg.
The company, Darwin Life, was quietly established last year by John Zhang, also founder of a New York City clinic called New Hope Fertility Center, to deploy a cutting-edge fertility technology called “spindle nuclear transfer.”
Originally developed as a way to prevent women from passing certain rare diseases on to their children, Zhang says it can also be used to create rejuvenated eggs. He calls it a “cure for infertility” and says Darwin Life will begin offering it to women aged 42 to 47, an age at which the chance of becoming pregnant declines dramatically.
Zhang is a highly skilled fertility provocateur who last year, in Mexico, carried out the first successful use of the technique, which employs delicate hollow needles to swap the chromosomes of a woman’s egg into the egg of a donor.
The process is controversial because it is largely untested and because some consider it a form of genetic modification. In March, after lengthy public debate, the U.K. became the first country to formally allow the use of a similar treatment, but only when a couple is at 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 offer it only overseas for now. He says the company is assessing a handful of hopeful women over 40 who may be able to benefit.
The formation of the company is alarming some observers, who say the process is too new to commercialize widely and could create increased demand for donors to supply eggs.
“This is a biologically extreme and risky procedure,” says Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center 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.
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Sometimes known as a “three-parent baby” technique, the procedure acts to combine one woman’s genes with the youthful contents of another’s egg, notably energy-making structures called mitochondria. Because mitochondria possess their own small number of genes, the resulting child has three genetic parents.
The cause of age-related infertility is still unknown, but Zhang and some other experts believe that faulty mitochondria are a reason why older women can’t easily produce viable embryos. That’s why Zhang thinks his technique of harnessing a young egg will help.
Last year, Zhang and his team performed spindle nuclear transfer on the eggs of a woman with a rare neurological disease called Leigh syndrome, caused by defective mitochondria. The parents, a Jordanian couple, had previously given birth to two children who died from the disease.
Zhang started by obtaining an egg from a donor and removing its nucleus. Into this genetically hollowed-out egg, he then injected the chromosomes of the Jordanian woman, which he had obtained from one of her eggs. Zhang then fertilized the reconstructed egg with the father’s sperm, as would occur in standard in vitro fertilization, or IVF.
Although that embryo was created in New York City, it was transferred to the woman’s uterus in Mexico because of a U.S. law that effectively outlaws the use of the technology here. A healthy baby boy was born in April 2016.
Concerns over “designer babies” led Congress to forbid the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from considering research applications involving any type of genetically modified embryos, including those made using the nuclear transfer technique.