U.K. Moves Closer to 3-Parent Babies

By Peter Russell
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Rob Hicks, MD

Feb. 4, 2015 -- The United Kingdom is on course to become the first country to approve the creation of babies using DNA from 3 people.

The new in vitro fertilization technique, developed at Newcastle University, uses genetic material from a "second mother" to repair faulty DNA.

Supporters have hailed the decision as a milestone for progressive medicine. Opponents have warned it could lead to so-called "designer babies."

Big Vote

The British Parliament's House of Commons voted 382 to 128 in favor of the new law, which will require approval by the House of Lords.

The technique makes embryos containing DNA from three people to help prevent rare genetic diseases -- otherwise known as mitochondrial diseases -- that are passed on from mother to child.

Mitochondria make energy that cells in your body need in order to work. They're sometimes referred to as the cell's "batteries."

When babies are born with faulty mitochondria, they can get serious health problems, such as heart and liver disease and respiratory issues.

The technique involves transferring genetic material from the nucleus of an egg or embryo from a woman carrying a mitochondrial disease into an egg or embryo from a healthy donor that has had its nuclear DNA removed. This means the resulting embryo will have the affected mother's nuclear DNA but will not inherit the mitochondrial disease. This allows a woman carrying defective mitochondria to have healthy children.

The resulting embryo has the nuclear DNA of the mother and father, but the mitochondrial DNA of the donor -- hence the label "three-parent IVF" treatment.

Disease Prevention

Opening the Parliament debate, health minister Jane Ellison said: "The techniques provided for by these regulations offer the only hope for some women who carry the disease to have healthy, genetically related children who will not suffer from the devastating and often fatal consequences of serious mitochondrial disease."

Among those who opposed the measures, Sir Edward Leigh said he was against changing the law on ethical grounds: "Given the nature of the human condition, these appalling diseases, sadly, will occur, but where do we stop? What further modifications will we make?"

There were cheers in the Commons when the result of the vote was announced.

'An Important Hurdle'

Prof. Doug Turnbull, who led the research in Newcastle, welcomed the decision, saying it was an "important hurdle in the development of this new IVF technique." He added in a statement, "I think the quality of the debate today shows what a robust scientific, ethical, and legislative procedure we have in the U.K. for IVF treatments."

The British Fertility Society said it was "very proud of the pioneering work of the team at Newcastle." Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, which funds the work of Prof. Turnbull's team, said in a statement: "Families who know what it is like to care for a child with a devastating disease are best placed to decide whether mitochondrial donation is the right option for them.

"We welcome this vote to give them that choice, and we hope that the House of Lords reaches a similar conclusion so that this procedure can be licensed under the U.K.'s internationally admired regulatory system."

In a statement, Prof. Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer at the U.K. Department of Health, said, "I'm delighted that MPs [members of Parliament in the House of Commons] have voted to approve these regulations and hope the Lords will do the same.

"Mitochondrial donation will give women who carry severe mitochondrial disease the opportunity to have children without passing on devastating genetic disorders. It will also keep the U.K. at the forefront of scientific development in this area."

Christian Concern

The proposed change in the law has been met with criticism from some organizations, including Christian groups.

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, a former Bishop of Rochester, says: "The new techniques may prevent babies being born with mitochondrial disease, but they will not cure those who have been born already.

"Moreover, babies will continue to be born with these conditions since parents will not always know of the risk until the first baby is born."

Before the vote, Paul Tully, general secretary of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, wrote: "The creation of cloning entails destroying some embryos in an attempt to create others. It discriminates against those with undesired genetic traits.

"It sets a precedent for wider cloning of human beings, not in a sinister dictatorship or science fiction world, but here in the U.K."

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References
SOURCES: Parliament.uk. Newcastle University. British Fertility Society. Wellcome Trust. Science Media Centre. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali. Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.

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