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Three into one fertility treatment

Tom Feilden | 11:54 UK time, Friday, 11 March 2011

A step in the process of in vitro fertilisation

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has asked the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to assess a controversial new fertility treatment which could help couples at risk of passing on serious inherited disorders to have a healthy child.

The technique, known as three-parent IVF, has been developed by researchers at Newcastle University and targets mitochondrial diseases - a devastating group of potentially fatal conditions including muscular dystrophy, heart disease and diabetes.

Mitochondria are found in every cell in the human body and provide the energy cells need to function. But because mitochondrial DNA is only passed down the female line, and is not present in the nucleus of a fertilised human egg, it's possible to extract that genetic material - the nucleus - and transplant it into a second, donor egg.

The resulting embryo has nuclear DNA from the mother and father, but mitochondrial DNA from the donor.

"The technique completely prevents the transmission of mitochondrial disease from mother to child," according to Professor Doug Turnbull who lead the research. "Genetic information from the mother and father is transferred from one egg to another, leaving the defective mitochondrial DNA behind."

The amount of genetic material contained in mitochondrial DNA is very small - just 13 protein producing genes compared to the 23,000 genes we inherit from our parents - but even this limited genetic relationship to a third parent has raised ethical questions.

Speaking on the programme this morning, Dr David King from the pressure group Human Genetics Alert claimed that manipulating embryos in this way risked long term genetic damage to the child.

"I hate to be the one to pour cold water on people's hopes, but we already know that there are significant risks to the child from manipulating embryos in this way. There is a perfectly viable and safe alternative which is to use donated eggs."

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That might not be enough to satisfy Beth Wilkes, whose son Caspar died from the mitochondrial disorder Leigh's disease in July last year aged just 3 months. In a moving testimony on the programme this morning Mrs Wilkes talked about the devastating impact of the disease as it progressed.

"It was six weeks before we realised there was something wrong. He was floppy and he wasn't as responsive as he had been. He stopped crying. He just wasn't the baby we brought home from the hospital."

Mrs Wilkes is trying for another child, but wants to be sure the baby is free from mitochondrial disease. The three-parent IVF technique developed at Newcastle might ensure that, but it's not yet available as a fertility treatment. "We've not only lost our child, we've lost our future" she says.

The researchers concede the technique is not yet ready to be rolled out as an IVF treatment, but the science is progressing very fast. They want the review process, which will inform a wider political debate, to start now.

And it seems that the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley agrees. He's instructed the HFEA to set up an expert panel to assess the effectiveness and safety of the new technique.

In a statement issued this morning a DoH official stressed the technique was not allowed under current legislation. "When the expert group reports back, and based on the evidence available, we can decide whether it is the right time to consider making these regulations".

That would involve votes in both Houses of Parliament.


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