Controversial fertility treatment requiring three genetic parents given thumbs up

A number of years ago we reported on how a "three-person IVF" procedure could be used to stop serious conditions from being passed from mother to child. The prospect caused serious concern among many scientists and ethicists. But now the BBC is reporting that a bioethics council is green-lighting the treatment.

To review, scientists are hoping to see it used as a therapy to eliminate rare mitochondrial diseases. Mitochondria function as powerpacks that can be found in virtually every human cell, and just like the nucleus, they also contain DNA. Unfortunately, inherited defects in this mitochondrial DNA affects approximately 1 in 5,000 births, leading to severe or even fatal results.

Researchers speculate that a way to overcome this problem is to take two eggs, one from the mother and one from a donor. The nucleus of the donor egg is removed, leaving the mitochondria intact and replaced by the mother's nucleus. The resulting embryo has properly functioning mitochondria from the donor — resulting in a potentially healthy baby, albeit one with three parents.

Needless to say not everybody thinks this is a good idea. David King, the director of Human Genetics Alert, warns that the effects would be passed on from generation to generation. He is quoted by the BBC:

"Just as Frankenstein's creation was produced by sticking together bits from many different bodies, it seems that there is no grotesquerie, no violation of the norms of nature or human culture at which scientists and their bioethical helpers will balk.

"The proposed techniques are both unnecessary, and highly dangerous in the medium term, since they set a precedent for allowing the creation of genetically modified designer babies."

He argued that such techniques would affect many generations and crossed "what is normally considered the most important ethical line in the prevention of a new eugenics" and this was "precisely how slippery slopes get created".

But now, after eight months of deliberation on the matter, the UK's Nuffield Council on Bioethics has come out in support and stated that the technique could free children from "very severe and debilitating disorders". It has a clear social benefit, they argue, resulting in a child that has only 0.1% of its genetic information coming from the donor.

And as Peter Braude from King's College London noted, "The net effect is an embryo that carries the true parents' characteristics in a clean egg with healthy mitochondria." From the BBC report:

Dr Geoff Watts, who led the inquiry, said: "If further research shows these techniques to be sufficiently safe and effective, we think it would be ethical for families to use them if they wished to, provided they receive an appropriate level of information and support.

"They could offer significant health and social benefits to individuals and families, who could potentially live their lives free from what can be very severe and debilitating disorders."

It also said the donor woman would not be a "third parent" or "second mother" and the laws on sperm or egg donation should not apply.

The council stressed that the procedure should only be used to prevent mitochondrial diseases.

You can read more at the BBC here and here. And be sure to check out the council's full report.

Image via Shutterstock/somersault18:24.