2 Feb 2015

Risks and potential rewards of ‘three-parent embryos’

The idea is simple. Fix devastating mitochondrial disease by taking a parent’s DNA out of a sickly embryo and sticking it into a healthy donor cell.

The techniques involved are not much more complicated than those used every day in IVF clinics and should, according those developing them, be no more harmful than established fertility techniques.

So why does licensing “mitochondrial donation”, as it’s known by its backers, require a vote from parliament tomorrow – one they fear may not go their way?

Well, partly because of the other name the technique has been given: “three-parent embryos”.

The thing is, mitochondria – the small organelles in the cell which are being swapped out using the technique – contain their own DNA. That DNA is largely involved in making the mitochondria work, generating the cell’s power – but it’s DNA nonetheless.

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Each of us inherits our mitochondria from our mother and has done, probably, since multicellular life evolved 3 billion years ago. For that reason many people object ethically to the idea of unhitching parental DNA from its mitochondria with which it has resided for aeons.

Others object for scientific reasons. Even the New Scientist magazine, typically a champion for progress in all areas of research, warned of lack of understanding about the links between mitochondria and nuclear DNA.

Others object to the fact that steps taken during the technique (removing “pro-nuclei” containing parent’s DNA and transplanting it) are untried in humans and cause miscarriages or other developmental problems later in a child’s life.

Against that backdrop, however, there has been nearly eight years of consultation and review and three separate studies by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. It has concluded that the procedure is “not unsafe” and that, subject to further experiments to prove it is efficient, could be awarded a licence by them.

Tomorrow’s vote is not to allow the technique to happen – but it would allow those developing it the chance to do more experiments to demonstrate it could yield a clinically useful technique.

Some doubt they ever will, but the team themselves are confident. Supporting them are many of the 2,500 women in the UK who are carriers of mitochondrial disease, for whom this technique could spare their children a lifetime of suffering – but also all the generations of children to come.

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3 reader comments

  1. Andrew Fyfe says:

    Sorry to all those that are affected by this condition, but it is natures way of stopping mankind from over populating the planet. If we keep interfering with the natural order of things, no matter how painful that order might be or how unfair we might feel it is, we are dooming future generations to food shortages or epidemics of new strains of diseases, because nature will fight back to try and restore balance and order. By messing with this order we are acting more like a virus or plague on the eco system and will bring about our whole species demise a lot sooner than it should be.

  2. Geoffrey Brindle says:

    MP’s must be brave at tomorrow’s free vote on Mitochondrial Donation! The benefits for future generations is immense. The UK must lead the world into Mitochondrial Donation as we always do. Mitochondrial disease is a worldwide problem, not only a UK disease. Mitochondrial Donation will give hope to affected families who without it, life is totally hopeless. For, once a child is born with Mitochondrial Disease, their is no cure or treatment. You wait for the inevitable to happen. My son died at the age of 40.

  3. A Lewis says:

    Whilst the intentions may be good this measure fails to realise that a child is a gift, not a right. It also fails to acknowledge the psychological impact on identity for any children conceived. We all have a desire to know who we are and where we come from. Anonymous donors remove this from these children and put their rights as second to their parents.

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