The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has announced plans to speed up the licensing of embryo tests for some genetic conditions. Currently, PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) is approved on a case by case basis, even for tests that are already being carried out elsewhere in the country. Under the new guidelines, applications to carry out tests for conditions that have been successfully carried out in another clinic - such as those for sickle cell anaemia and Duchenne muscular dystrophy - will be approved without having to go through the full HFEA licensing committee process.
To carry out PGD, doctors test IVF embryos, to ensure that only embryos unaffected by a particular genetic condition are returned to the woman's womb. Eight clinics throughout the UK are currently licensed to carry out the procedure, which involves the removal of a single cell from a two to four day old embryo - an embryo biopsy. Suzi Leather, chair of the HFEA, said that 'whilst PGD is a specialised procedure, which can only be carried out by a qualified embryo biopsy practitioner, it should be straightforward for those clinics with a proven track record in the appropriate techniques to be able to carry out screening for any of the conditions currently approved'.
Ms Leather hopes that the new guidelines will 'streamline the system', and cut down on bureaucracy. However, the HFEA stresses that more specialised applications of PGD - such as tissue typing of embryos to conceive 'saviour siblings' able to donate cord blood to existing sick children - will still require 'thorough consideration' on an individual basis. Applications to use PGD for late onset conditions, such as familial cancers, will also require full consideration by the licensing committee, as will PGD for new conditions.
In November 2004, the HFEA triggered debate when it granted a licence to a clinic that wanted to carry out PGD for familial adenomatous polyposis coli (FAP), an inherited form of bowel cancer. In June 2004, UK IVF doctor Mohammed Taranissi announced that he would be applying for a licence to use PGD to test embryos for gene mutations that cause familial breast cancer. At the time, he called for a public debate, and a national policy on the use of PGD for late-onset conditions, so that clinics would not need to seek permission on a case by case basis.