Today, the UK’s fertility regulator approved a controversial technique to create embryos with the DNA of two women and one man. Described by Sally Cheshire, the chairwoman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), as “a decision of historic importance”, the aim is to prevent children being born with incurable mitochondrial diseases.
Mitochondrial diseases, which affect one in 4,300 children, can cause muscle weakness, seizures, blindness, deafness and heart and liver failure and are often fatal. The defective mitochondria is passed down through the mother. The new treatment involves the healthy nucleus of the mother’s egg being used in place of the nucleus of the donor’s egg which is surrounded by healthy mitochondria. Only 0.1 percent of a person’s DNA is held in mitochondria, so the child will only have a very small amount of the donor’s characteristics. As such, the child will still have its parents physical and personality traits.
Last year the UK became the first country to legalise mitochondrial replacement therapy but the first baby created in this way was born in September earlier this year by two Jordanian parents with doctors from New York. The child was born in Mexico as fertility laws there are much less stringent. In contrast, the procedure in the UK will be tightly regulated and there will be long-term follow-ups of each three-parent child. According to the Independent, Trevor Stammers, a lecturer at St Mary’s University, advocated a “truly cautious” approach by carefully monitoring the health of the child born in Mexico before opening the doors to treatment in the UK.
The procedure was developed by doctors in Newcastle and the first hospital to offer the treatment is expected to be Newcastle-upon-Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. Expecting to treat 25 women a year, the hospital has already put out an appeal for donor eggs. To use this new technique, clinics and patients have to apply individually for a licence from the HFEA. It is predicted that the first IVF of this kind in the UK will take place in Spring 2017.
However, Sally Cheshire herself admitted that there is still a “long way to go” as it is possible that more faulty mitochondria will be carried over to the child than expected. Alternatively, more of the donor’s DNA than predicted may transfer onto the child, giving it more personal traits of the donor than intended.
Although many scientists are delighted that this IVF option is now available in the UK despite its early stage of development, others have expressed concerns as to its ethics. Once embryos can be manipulated in this way, the door may lie open to ‘designer babies’ and the moral dilemmas they entail.
But, despite the debate surrounding the issue, this astounding scientific feat offers hope to many women who previously thought they would never be able to conceive a healthy child.