Three-person IVF could be approved in the UK soon

Tomorrow, MPs will decide whether to allow three-person IVF in the UK. If the procedure’s made legal, it would prevent mitochondrial diseases. Mitochondria are the organisms inside cells that produce energy so cells can function. But when a mother has a flaw in her mitochondria, she can pass on severe mitochondrial disease to her baby. This affects one in 6500 children and causes muscle weakness, blindness, heart failure and early death.

There are two different three-person IVF techniques available: in one, the mother and a donor each have an egg fertilised to create two embryos. The pronuclei, which encode an embryo’s genetic information, are then taken from the donor’s embryo, which has healthy mitochondria, and replaced with the mother’s. In the second, the nucleus from the donor’s egg is removed so it contains only healthy mitochondria, and the mother’s nucleus is added.

In either case, any babies born in this way will have around 0.1% of the donor’s DNA. This isn’t significant, and will only relate to cell function, not distinguishing features, but it will be passed down through the generations, which is proving controversial.

The group Human Genetics Alert has warned this could lead to ‘designer babies’ and as the BBC reports, both the Church of England and the Catholic Church in England and Wales are against three-person IVF, fearing it might not be ethical (because some embryos are destroyed) or safe. But Professor Doug Turnbull, who led the research at Newcastle University, says the science has been thoroughly  reviewed.

The 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act theoretically allowed for the possibility of babies who have two women’s genetic material, but now that it’s a reality, the government must vote again to pass it into law. If they approve it, as it’s suspected they will, the first procedure will be carried out later this year, with the first three-person IVF baby being born in 2016.

Image by Eugene Ermolovich via Wikimedia Commons.

Diane Shipley


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