Three-person IVF babies are closer to becoming a reality

It used to be strictly a two-person activity, but according to a new scientific review, three people will be able to have a baby in around two years’ time – if the procedure is made legal.

It would be used to prevent mitochondrial diseases, which are passed from mothers to children. Mitochondria are tiny organisms inside cells that produce the energy that cells need to function. One in 6500 babies is born with severe mitochondrial disease which can cause muscle weakness, blindness, heart failure and early death.

The government announced its backing for three-person IVF (TPIVF) last year, pending further testing. Now a scientific panel assembled by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has looked at two advanced forms of TPIVF using genes from parents-to-be and a woman with healthy mitochondria, and considered them to be safe.

The techniques were developed by a team at Newcastle University, led by Professor Doug Turnbull. One involves implanting the parents’ cell nuclei into a donor embryo, and one involves the mother’s nucleus being inserted into a donor egg. In both cases, the only genetic material used from the donor is their mitochondria, but as this has its own DNA, any baby born from these procedures would have genes from three people – as would their descendants. However, the proportion of donor DNA used is tiny: just 0.1%.

The HEFA report called for more testing before either procedure is used in fertility treatment, including looking at the possible risk to any children born using TPIVF. The Department of Health will review the possibility of changing fertility regulations to make these techniques possible, and make a final decision later this year.

When the government announced its initial support for the science, some campaign groups, including Human Genetics Alert, expressed alarm about the donor embryos that would be destroyed and the possibility of “designer babies”.

But a UK-wide consultation showed that members of the public were largely in favour of the idea, and it is welcomed by patient groups, including the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign.

Image via christina tuz’ Flickr.

Diane Shipley