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28 Jun, 2013 03:50

UK ready to approve 3-person fertilization method

UK ready to approve 3-person fertilization method

The UK is set to approve an artificial fertility treatment that will allow the creation of human embryos using genetic material from three parents in a bid to prevent specific birth defects. Opponents say it could lead to a “designer baby” market.

In vitro fertilization (or IVF) is already a widely adopted method that allows parents dealing with infertility to conceive by artificially fertilizing a mother’s egg outside of her body. Assisted reproductive technology of this type has increased its success rate in the last few years, with the US pregnancy rate for IVF in 2009 reported at 47.6% for women under 35, and similar success rates reported in countries including Canada, France and the UK.

Now, a new technique for three-person IVF is likely to be offered in the UK in as little as two years, once draft regulations are drawn up. The inclusion of a third individual, in this case by using a donor egg, could lead to the elimination of fatal mitochondrial diseases, which are thought to affect one in every 6,500 babies in the UK and about 1 in 4,000 in the US.

Mitochondria, often thought of as the “power house” of the human cell, are small, pill-like structures that convert glucose into energy for the human body, and also carry a small percentage of genetic material passed on to offspring.

Defective mitochondria passed on to children can result in muscle weakness, blindness, heart failure and death in the most severe cases. Research also indicates that mitochondrial defects can also lead to diabetes, deafness, Parkinson’s disease and even obesity later in life.

By using a donor egg to transfer genetic material from the mother, scientists believe an embryo with healthy mitochondria can be produced, though it also introduces the additional genetic material of a third individual into the human embryo - an ethical concern for some. 

AFP Photo / Didier Pallages

Criticism of the new technique is based on both the fact that scientists will begin altering human genetic inheritance, as well as the potential for creating a eugenic “designer baby” market, where parents could pick and choose genetic traits.

The UK’s fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), has cleared the way for the mitochondria replacement procedure. Robin Lovell-Badge, a member of the committee that produced HFEA's safety reports, told Wired UK that criticism of the three-person IVF was baseless.

"The fears expressed by some opponents of the techniques, such as that they will lead 'inexorably to the disaster of genetically engineered babies and consumer eugenics,' have no grounding at all," says Lovell-Badge.

"The methods to achieve the latter are very different, we found no evidence that the public would show any support for these dubious (and currently unachievable) aims, and the distinction between both the aims and the methods required makes it very easy to have regulations and laws against their use."

Sharon Bernardi, a British mother who lost all seven of her children to mitochondrial disease, became the subject of a widely publicized story in UK in 2012. Six of Bernardi’s children died before the age of two, four within hours of birth, while her longest-living son, Edward, died last year at the age of 21 after suffering from severe seizures despite blood transfusions and medical care.

Supporters of the new technique agree that IVF involving three individuals marks a new level of human genetic modification, though the HFEA has concluded that there is “general support” for the idea, and that there was no evidence that the advanced form of IVF is unsafe.

Draft regulations in the UK will be prepared this year, and a final version is expected to be up for debate and a vote in parliament in 2014.