Published on 28 Jun 2013 Sections ,

Breaking IVF barriers – Britain a world leader once again

With Britain seemingly set to be the first country to approve babies with three parents, what makes the UK such fertile ground for IVF innovation?

Today the UK moved a step closer to the possibility of allowing a baby to be created with DNA from three different people.

New regulations allowing the procedures will be issued for public consultation later this year and then debated in parliament.

If MPs find them ethically acceptable, the first patients could be treated within months.

Leading the way

Sarah Norcross, Director of the Progress Educational Trust, has said that today’s announcement is a combination of “regulatory framework and public support.”

She told Channel 4 News: “First of all, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 [an Act to amend the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990] paved the way to get the research started.

“Secondly, scientists and doctors have been speaking publicly to the public, the media and politicians. And thirdly, IVF is widely embraced in the UK.

“The government can act confidently and quickly and not impede scientific progress from delivering its promised benefit.”

British scientist Robert Edwards, who died earlier this year, helped develop the techniques used for IVF. His work led to the birth of the first test tube baby, Louise Brown, in 1978.

A moral decision

Alison Murdoch, Professor of Reproductive Medicine, Newcastle University, added: “This is great news for UK science and gives hope to women who just want a healthy baby. The UK government has made a moral decision.”

“The death of a baby is a parent’s worst nightmare. Our research is leading to a pioneering IVF technology to reduce that risk for mothers who have abnormal mitochondria. There is still more research to do, but this decision means that we could eventually be allowed to offer it as a treatment.”

Following a scientific debate, the UK’s fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), advised the Government there is no scientific evidence to say the advance form of IVF is unsafe; but it has recommended that regulation and safeguards be put in place.

The technique would give a baby DNA from a father, a mother as well as a female egg donor, to eradicate mitochondrial disorders which are debilitating and fatal. Children born after the procedures would possess nuclear DNA inherited from their parents plus mitochondrial DNA from a female egg donor.

The procedure would be used to stop the transmission of defective mitochondrial DNA passed on from mothers to their babies.

Mitochondria are rod-shaped power plants in the bodies of cells that convert energy from food into a form that cells can use. Although most DNA is packaged in chromosomes within the nucleus, mitochondria also have a small amount of their own DNA.

No medical benefit

However Dr David King, Director of Human Genetics Alert, argues the technique is unnecessary and adds extra risk to the children.

He said: “There is no actual published scientific evidence with normal embryos that [this technique] actually works.

“There is a completely safe [technique] that is already available [conventional egg donation].

“All these techniques add is that they allow the mother to be genetically related to their child but that’s actually not a medical benefit to anybody, neither to the mother nor to the child.”

Critics also raised concerns last year about the treatment.

Mitochondrial diseases 

One in 200 children born each year in the UK has some form of mitochondrial disease.
Not all suffer serious symptoms and not all the girls among them will pass the condition to their offspring.
But the defects in mitochondrial DNA can give rise to a range of serious and potentially life-threatening diseases, including a form of muscular dystrophy and conditions leading to the loss of hearing and vision, heart problems and intestinal disorders.

Helen Watt, from the Anscombe Centre for Bioethics in Oxford, a Roman Catholic academic institute told Channel 4 News in 2012 that: “Any child born from this particular technique will sadly discover she has no genetic parents – not three parents, as is sometimes reported.

“Instead, she is formed from the bodies of two embryos created and killed precisely as ‘building blocks’ for hers.

“We are very far here from the unconditional welcome of new life which having a baby should involve.”

Pioneering science

Britain has been a world leader in IVF science from the very beginning.

The first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was born at Oldham General Hospital in 1978, thanks to the work of Professor Robert Edwards, who had been working on new techniques for reproductive medicine since the 1960s.

However, controversy over the science meant he was refused funding by the UK’s medical research council in 1971 and had to rely largely on private donations to continue. Following the birth of baby Louise, Professor Edwards set up the first IVF clinic at Bourn Hall with his colleague Dr Patrick Steptoe.

In 2010 Professor Edwards was awarded a Nobel prize for medicine.

By 2012, over five million children had been born through assisted reproductive techniques worldwide.