In Brief

Licence granted to first three-person baby in UK

Newcastle gets green light to use groundbreaking technology that can eliminate genetic disease

A fertility clinic has become the first in the UK to be granted a licence to use a controversial DNA replacement treatment that results in 'three-parent babies'.

An unidentified woman will now be the first person to undergo mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT) in the UK at the Newcastle Fertility Centre at Life clinic, Sky News reports.

The breakthrough technique uses cutting edge gene-editing technology to prevent an unborn baby from developing mitochondrial disease.

The genetic disease affects around one in 10,000 newborns and is a chronic lifelong condition that can impair organ function, vision, growth and cognitive ability.

The pioneering technology enables doctors to replace the defective mitochondria in the mother's egg with healthy mitochondria DNA from a donor. The egg is then implanted via IVF.

The UK became the first country to legalise MRT in 2015 and the procedure was given the greenlight by the UK's fertility regulator the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority last December.

A baby born in Mexico last year was the first in the world to be treated with MRT, but the therapy remains "highly controversial", says Sky News.

Although only 0.1 per cent of the baby's DNA will come from the mitochondrial donor, the procedure has been condemned as crossing into uncharted medical and moral waters.

In 2015, a group of scientists wrote an article in Nature warning that genetic manipulation of sperm or egg cells could have "unpredictable effects on future generations".

Some have expressed ethical concerns that opening the door to genetic modifications could one day lead to "designer babies", with parents allowed to select desired traits, such as intelligence.              

However, this kind of manipulation is far beyond our current scientific progress, writes Philip Ball in The Observer.

While scientists can now pinpoint the specific mutations responsible for some genetic diseases, "when it comes to more complex things like personality and intelligence, we know very little", writes Ball.

Bioethicist Ronald Green says that the technology needed to rewrite even comparatively simple cosmetic genes – those determining eye colour, for example – will not be available for "40 or 50 years".

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