DOCTORS recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of the moment Louise Brown entered the world. Most of us are brought into the world through the intimate union of mum and dad, but Louise was the world’s first ‘test tube baby’. Her arrival was an earth-shattering breakthrough like something from a sci-fi story. Mr and Mrs Brown’s sperm and egg had been mixed in a shallow Petri dish (not a test tube) and left for a few days until grown into an embryo the size of a grain of sand, then injected into mum’s womb. Louise was born nine months later. For 1978, it was a mind-boggling advance, but like most human endeavours, it hadn’t come out of the blue. Some people say the Great Pyramid of Giza fell from the sky when actually it was the crowning glory of hundreds of years’ technological progress (no one remembers the botched attempts that crumbled). Similarly, IVF (In-Vitro Fertilisation) was the product of years of blood, sweat and tears. Newspapers proclaimed Louise the “Superbabe” who gave “new hope for motherhood” and the world will never be the same again. Millions of infertile couples now have a hope their grandparents’ generation could have only dreamed of. 
I BELIEVE that we have just witnessed another medical breakthrough more monumental than IVF, which burst on the world 40 years ago with the birth of Louise Brown, meaning millions of infertile couples now have a hope their grandparents’ generation could have only dreamed of.
We learnt of a seven-year-old boy – the ‘boy with the butterfly skin’ – whose life was saved with cutting-edge genetic engineering treatments. Born in war-torn Syria, Hassan came into the world with a rare genetic condition called epidermolysis bullosa. It caused his skin to be as delicate and brittle as a butterfly, making it slough off or blister at the slightest touch. Forget playing football or having anything approaching a normal childhood – his body was a mess of disfiguring and agonising sores. All doctors could do was delay the inevitable – until now.
21 months ago, Hassan received a treatment called ‘autologous transgenic stem cell treatment’ (they’re going to need to work on a better name). Hassan was in intensive care after having lost 80 per cent of his skin and looking like he had been dropped into a vat of boiling water when medics plucked up the courage to try something new. Embarking on a brave new venture, they found and snipped out a 4cm square (0.6 sq inches) of skin that hadn’t yet blistered to take to the lab for some genetic jiggery-pokery. They mixed his skin cells with a genetically-modified virus that had been programmed to infect the cells and correct the boy’s genetic error. Now if that wasn’t space-age enough, they then grew his skin cells on a glass plates – for about the same amount of time Louise Brown lived in a Petri dish – until they had manufactured sheets of brand new skin. Looking like transparent, squidgy paper, this new skin was as fresh as a newly-born babe’s. After layering it back onto Hassan’s beetroot red body, he was quite literally reborn.
Hassan can now run around and play football, and is beginning to have a real childhood – I challenge you to take the time to read Hassan’s full story and not shed a tear. His story marks the new era of genetic therapies that I believe will see many diabolical diseases become a footnote of history. Don’t believe me? A little over a week ago, a 44-year-old American man who was born with a debilitating condition called Hunter’s Syndrome became the first person to be treated with ‘total-body’ gene therapy. If all goes according to plan, every strand of faulty DNA in his body will be fixed and he will be completely cured. Watch this space – if you thought IVF was incredible, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Dr Stu