Britain Champions 3-Way-Parent Designer Babies In New IVF Technology

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IVFBritain is planning to become the first country in the world to offer controversial “three-parent” fertility treatments to families who want to avoid passing on incurable diseases to their children.

The methods, currently only at the research stage in laboratories in Britain and theUnited States, would for the first time involve implanting genetically modified embryos into women, and raise serious ethical questions.

The techniques involve intervening in the fertilisation process to remove faulty mitochondrial DNA, which can cause inherited conditions such as fatal heart problems, liver failure, brain disorders, blindness and muscular dystrophy.

They are designed to help families with mitochondrial diseases – incurable conditions passed down the maternal line that affect around one in 6,500 children worldwide. Mitochondria act as tiny energy-generating batteries inside cells,

The controversial potential treatment is known as three-parent in vitro fertilisation (IVF) because the offspring would have genes from a mother, a father and from a female donor.

After a national public consultation showed Britons broadly favour the idea, the government’s chief physician said today it should be allowed to go ahead under strict regulation.

“Scientists have developed ground-breaking new procedures which could stop these diseases being passed on, bringing hope to many families seeking to prevent their children inheriting them,” Sally Davies, chief medical officer, told reporters.

“It’s only right that we look to introduce this life-saving treatment as soon as we can.”

Ms Davies said the government’s health department is drafting regulations to cover the new treatments, and plans to publish them later this year. The move would make Britain the first country in the world to give patients to option of using so-called mitochondrial DNA transfer to avoid passing the diseases on to their children.

DNA Swap

Scientists are researching several three-parent IVF techniques.

One being developed at Britain’s Newcastle University, known as pronuclear transfer, swaps DNA between two fertilised human eggs. Another, called maternal spindle transfer, swaps material between the mother’s egg and a donor egg before fertilisation.

A British medical ethics panel which reviewed the potential treatments for mitochondrial diseases decided last year they were ethical and should go ahead as long as research shows they are likely to be safe and effective.

Because Britain is in the vanguard of this research, ethical concerns, political decisions and scientific advances here are closely watched around the world – particularly in the United States where scientists are also working on DNA swap techniques.

Some pro-life campaigners have criticised the scientific research, saying that creating embryonic children in a lab abuses them by subjecting them to unnatural processes.

Critics also worry that modifying embryos to avoid disease could be the first step towards the creation of “designer babies”, whose genetic makeup could be modified as embryos to ensure certain traits such as height or hair colour.

Asked whether she was “comfortable” with taking such a major step along the way to allowing human genetic modification, Ms Davies said she had debated and considered the ethical implications with many experts over many years and had come to the conclusion the techniques should be allowed.

Any final decision on putting the regulations in place to allow the new treatments to be offered will be subject to a vote in parliament, but Ms Davies said she hoped the first patients may be able to get the new treatments within the next two years.

Reuters

designer babyEarlier this year, a public consultation by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) concluded there was “general support” for the idea and that there was no evidence that the advanced form of IVF was unsafe.

The chief medical officer for England, Prof Dame Sally Davies, said: “Scientists have developed ground-breaking new procedures which could stop these disease being passed on, bringing hope to many families seeking to prevent their future children inheriting them.

“It’s only right that we look to introduce this life-saving treatment as soon as we can.”

She said there were “clearly some sensitive issues here” but said she was “personally very comfortable” with altering mitochondria.

Scientists have devised two techniques that allow them to take the genetic information from the mother and place it into the egg of a donor with healthy mitochondria.

The result is a baby with genetic information from three people.

They would have more than 20,000 genes from their parents and 37 mitochondrial genes from a donor.

It is a change that would have ramifications through the generations as scientists would be altering human genetic inheritance.

Objections to the procedure have been raised ever since it was first mooted.

Dr David King, the director of Human Genetics Alert, said: “These techniques are unnecessary and unsafe and were in fact rejected by the majority of consultation responses.

‘Designer baby’

“It is a disaster that the decision to cross the line that will eventually lead to a eugenic designer baby market should be taken on the basis of an utterly biased and inadequate consultation.”

One of the main concerns raised in the HFEA’s public consultation was of a “slippery slope” which could lead to other forms of genetic modification.

Draft regulations will be produced this year with a final version expected to be debated and voted on in Parliament during 2014.

Newcastle University is pioneering one of the techniques that could be used for three-person IVF.

Prof Doug Turnbull, the director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research at the university, said he was “delighted“.

He said: “This is excellent news for families with mitochondrial disease.

“This will give women who carry these diseased genes more reproductive choice and the opportunity to have children free of mitochondrial disease. I am very grateful to all those who have supported this work.”

The fine details of the regulations are still uncertain, yet it is expected to be for only the most severe cases.

It is also likely that children would have no right to know who the egg donor was and that any children resulting from the procedure would be monitored closely for the rest of their lives.

Sir John Tooke, the president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said: “Introducing regulations now will ensure that there is no avoidable delay in these treatments reaching affected families once there is sufficient evidence of safety and efficacy.

“It is also a positive step towards ensuring the UK remains at the forefront of cutting-edge research in this area.”