The government have asked the regulatory authority HFEA to launch a public consultation exercise to gauge public opinion on a new scientific technique that will allow the creation of IVF babies with three genetic parents. Public opinion may sway Parliament to make significant changes to current laws on human fertilisation and embryology. The public will be able to voice their thoughts on what are being called ‘unchartered territory’ techniques through online questionnaires on the HFEA’s website, public meetings in London and Manchester, and opinion polls.
The conception of a child using a third genetic contributor would involve using all the nuclear DNA of the mother and father but with the addition of a very small quantity of donated mitochondrial DNA from a donated egg which would replace damaged DNA. This donated DNA would account for only 0.2% of our genetic make-up. By using healthy donated mitochondria instead of damaged DNA, debilitating and fatal diseases caused by defects in mitochondrial DNA would be avoided. Such diseases can lead to muscle failure, blindness, deafness, heart problems and even death.
Children who suffer mitochondrial diseases will have received the damaged DNA from their mother, although a mother with the disease will not necessarily always pass it on to her offspring. Approximately one in 200 children British-born children has some sort of mitochondrial disease. For some it causes only mild disease; for others none at all; but for others yet it can be fatal. It is thought that, should the new techniques go ahead, only around 15 women a year would qualify for IVF treatment involving the replacement of damaged mitochondria. The treatment could however prevent numerous later generations from suffering such diseases. Many parents who have lost children to mitochondrial diseases are strongly in favour of the new IVF.
There are however ethical arguments against the new techniques, said to outweigh the benefits of the treatment. Some fear that if such meddling with genetics is legalised, it could eventually lead to a ‘brave new world’ of designer babies. Others cite the difficult problem of what status to afford the mitochondria donor in the process; will she be anonymous, or contactable by the child (as full sperm and egg donors are), since she has contributed to the child’s DNA?
Such questions will remain at bay for now at least, as it is estimated that research will take another four years before treatment can begin, if approved. The final decision on the matter will be made by the HFEA, who regular IVF clinics and fertility research.
Sources include: The Huffington Post, The Guardian, BBC News
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