Ethics debate opens into 'three-parent' IVF technique

Sep 17, 2012

Government is consulting on whether a technique which could prevent inherited diseases should be allowed

SHOULD we allow parents at risk of conceiving a baby with an inherited disease to use the DNA of a donor to create a healthy IVF child? That is the question the government is asking today at a public consultation launched by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

The technique, which is still at least five years from being offered in clinics, could be used by at-risk parents to avoid having a baby afflicted with a 'mitochondrial' disease such as muscular dystrophy. These diseases are passed down from mother to child. But a donor woman can provide healthy mitochondrial DNA.

One technique involves taking a couple's fertilised embryo, removing the nucleus - which contains the genetic material of the parents - and then putting it into a donor embryo. The donor nucleus is removed, so the only DNA present in the new embryo is mitochondrial DNA. The result is a 'three-parent baby' - and the donor woman's mitochondrial DNA will be passed on to successive generations of the recipient family through the female line.

The technique raises a range of ethical questions. Prof Lisa Jardine, chair of the HFEA, said: "It is genetic modification of the egg - that is uncharted territory. Once we have genetic modification we have to be sure we are damn happy."

Other ethical considerations, as in the widespread practice of egg donation for IVF, revolve around the feelings of the donor, parents and offspring. Should the child be told he or she has the genetic material of a 'third parent'? Should they be able to contact the donor?

Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, told The Times the consultation is "an important opportunity for us to discuss with the public why we believe this technique is essential and to listen to any concerns they may have".

Samantha Byerley of the Association of Clinical Embryologists said: "As long as the techniques are carried out within the strict and controlled framework that has already been proven, we see no reason why they cannot transfer safely and effectively from research into the IVF lab."

Prof Mary Herbert, part of a team researching the 'three-parent' technique at Newcastle University, told The Daily Telegraph: "We want to make a difference to the lives of our patients who live with mitochondrial diseases.

"These can seriously affect the quality of life of both patients and their families and it often affects several generations. If we can stop that happening it will be a tremendous help for many hundreds of people who suffer with these diseases."

While some supporters of the technique say it is just a new form of IVF, Josephine Quintavalle of the Comment on Reproductive Ethics campaign group, says it goes much further. "Although IVF might be considered artificial it is just a way of repeating what happens biologically, but this is a considerable step in a completely different direction where you are changing those building blocks forever," she said.

"You are playing around with the building blocks and restructuring how human life is created."

The public will be invited to give their views on the technique in a consultation which closes on 7 December. A report will be published in March 2013 and if it is decided that the technique is ethical, the government could legalise the treatment next year.

Sign up for our daily newsletter