The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has launched a
public consultation on the social and ethical impact of new methods that could
prevent the transmission of some incurable mitochondrial diseases.
The Government has asked the HFEA to seek public views on whether the two
techniques, known as pronuclear transfer (PNT) and maternal spindle transfer
(MST), should be made available as treatments to couples at risk of having an
The technologies are currently only
permitted in research laboratories. If they are approved for use in humans, however,
they could potentially allow women who carry faulty mitochondria to
avoid passing down the errors to future generations.
Professor Lisa Jardine, chair of the HFEA, said: 'The decision about whether
mitochondria replacement should be made available to treat patients is not only
an issue of great importance to families affected by these terrible diseases,
but is also one of enormous public interest'.
'We find ourselves in unchartered territory… we will use our considerable
experience of explaining complicated areas of science and ethics to the public
to generate a rich debate that is open to all'.
Mitochondria contain mtDNA which, if damaged, can result in one of a number
of rare genetic diseases. Around one in 200 children are born with a form of
mitochondrial disease each year in the UK and, while some cause no or mild
symptoms, others can be severe and can lead to a shortened life expectancy.
Symptoms include heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, muscle weakness
and pain, poor growth and loss of motor control.
The new techniques have attracted considerable interest from the press and
public, in part because they result in embryos containing genetic material from three people
— nuclear DNA from a man and a woman, plus mtDNA from the
Although some media reports have referred to 'three-parent IVF', the
Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which conducted an ethical review of the
techniques, rejected the notion of the mitochondrial donor representing a
'third parent' finding no evidence that mitochondrial inheritance is an element
of personal identity (reported in BioNews 661).
Mary Herbert, Professor of
Reproductive Biology at Newcastle
University and a member of the team who developed the new techniques,
explained: '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'.
'We are now undertaking experiments to test the safety and efficacy of the new
techniques and hope that this will inform the HFEA's decision making process.
This work may take three to five years to complete'.
Results of a poll conducted by the Progress Educational Trust indicated two-thirds of respondents supported allowing variations of IVF using genetic material from three people
to prevent people from inheriting mitochondrial diseases.
The findings of the HFEA's consultation will be reported to the Department
of Health in March 2013.