By Peter Russell
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Keith Barnard, MD
Feb. 25, 2015 -- The United Kingdom has become the first country to approve laws that allow the creation of babies using DNA from three people.
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The British Parliament's House of Lords voted in favor of this modified form of in vitro fertilitzation (IVF) on Tuesday. Law-makers in the House of Commons did so earlier this month.
Opponents, including church leaders and pro-life groups, have repeatedly warned that the technique could lead to so-called "designer babies." But during the debate preceding the House of Lords vote, health minister Earl Howe said it would be "cruel and perverse" to deny some women who carry serious inherited diseases the chance to bear healthy children.
The technique helps prevent rare genetic diseases, otherwise known as mitochondrial diseases, that are passed on from mother to child.
Mitochondria make the energy that cells in our body need in order to function. They're sometimes called the cell's "batteries." When babies are born with defective mitochondria, they can get serious health conditions, such as heart and liver disease and respiratory problems.
Research shows that mitochondrial donation could help women who are at risk of passing on these harmful DNA mutations in the mitochondria.
Alastair Kent, OBE, director of Genetic Alliance UK, says the vote was "a triumph that gives hope to families who otherwise would have to face the prospect of not being able to conceive a child free from a life limiting disease."
"With this vote the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority [the U.K.'s regulator of the fertility sector] is empowered to license the use of mitochondrial donation," he says. "We look forward to working with the HFEA and our members to ensure the voice of those families that stand to benefit is considered as part of the licensing process, so that when the time is right, they can look forward to children of their own who will not be affected by serious mitochondrial disease."
Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, says in a statement: "Families who know what it is like to care for a child with a devastating disease are the people best placed to decide whether mitochondrial donation is the right option for them. Parliament is to be commended for a considered and compassionate decision to give these families that choice, with proper safeguards under the U.K.'s internationally-admired regulatory system."
The HFEA says it will now make a licensing framework for the newly authorized treatments ahead of the regulations, which take effect on Oct. 29 this year.
The HFEA will need to issue a specific license to carry out mitochondrial donation treatment beyond any existing permission a clinic has to do IVF or other treatment.
It said reports that the first three-parent IVF treatment could be offered in 2016 are "theoretical."
"Britain is the first country in the world to permit this treatment, and it is a testament to the scientific expertise and well-respected regulatory regime that exists across the U.K. that Parliament has felt able to approve it," Sally Cheshire, chair of the HFEA, says in a statement.
"The HFEA now have to develop a robust licensing process, which takes into account on a case-by-case basis the technical and ethical complexities of such treatments to ensure that any children born have the best chance of a healthy life."
How the '3-Parent' Technique Works
It 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, but where the healthy mitochondria remain. This means the resulting embryo will have the affected mother's nuclear DNA, but it will not inherit the mitochondrial disease, which can allow a woman carrying defective mitochondria to have healthy children.
The baby ends up with the nuclear DNA of the mother and father (and their physical traits), but the healthy mitochondrial DNA of the donor. That's where the "three-parent" label comes from.
SOURCES: UK Parliament. Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). Genetic Alliance UK. Wellcome Trust. Science Media Centre.
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