The Australian Senate has passed a bill which will legalise the clinical use mitochondrial donation by a vote of 37 votes for to 17 against.
The bill, known as Maeve's law, had previously passed in the Australian House of Representatives (see BioNews 1124) with 92 votes for and 29 against, in Australia's first conscience vote since the same-sex marriage vote in 2017. Maeve's law is named after five-year-old Maeve Hood, who was born with Leigh syndrome, a severe mitochondrial disorder diagnosed when she was 18 months old.
Mitochondria, organelles that produce energy for cells, are passed on to offspring via the mitochondria in the egg cell. Approximately 50 children per year are born in Australia with a severe form of mitochondrial disease, with a life expectancy of about five years.
Mitochondrial disease results when a harmful mutation in the mitochondrial DNA is passed on from mother to child. The faulty mitochondria then fail to produce enough energy for cells.
'Mitochondrial diseases impact on at least one child born in Australia each week and lack effective treatments' said Professor David Thorburn, the co-group leader of brain and mitochondrial research at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, Melbourne, Australia, who also welcomed the decision. 'Affected patients typically suffer severe disease affecting their brain, heart or other organ systems and early death, ranging from infancy to middle age.'
However, other experts have called for caution, with some arguing the decision to legalise the technology is premature.
'If it is safe and there are no side effects, then I would be happy for it to be implemented, but until we are absolutely sure, then I have big reservations about its use,' said Professor Jus St John, a mitochondrial genetics researcher at the University of Adelaide, Australia, whose research lab is currently trying to determine how safe mitochondrial donation is. 'We do not have sufficient data from large animal models.'
Some senators echoed these concerns in a debate which included discussions of potential amendments to the bill. Proposed amendments included the removal of a technique which would destroy a fertilised egg, and the removal of immunity from civil actions. However, all amendments were voted down, meaning that the bill can become law without being sent back to Parliament.
Professor Thorburn argued that the bill will protect against misuse of the technology: 'The regulatory environment has safeguards that will ensure it can only be used for the intended purpose and the reforms are consistent with international standards and best practice.'