'Three-person IVF' technique moves closer

image captionAlmost all cells have mitochondria - shown here in green

Public opinion will help decide the future of a controversial genetic technique to stop serious conditions being passed from mother to child.

It replaces defective genetic material in the egg in order to eliminate rare mitochondrial diseases.

After the consultation into "three-person IVF", ministers will decide whether to allow it in patients.

A £5.8m centre at Newcastle University, funded by the Wellcome Trust, will investigate the technique's safety.

Inherited defects

Mitochondria can be found within almost every human cell, and provide the energy they need to function.

Like the nucleus of the cell, they contain DNA, although in tiny quantities.

Approximately 1 in 5,000 babies is born with inherited defects in their mitochondrial DNA, the effects of which can be very severe, or even fatal, depending on which cells are affected.

Scientists believe they have found a way to substitute the defective mitochondria and hopefully prevent the child from developing a disease.

They take two eggs, one from the mother and another from a donor.

The nucleus of the donor egg is removed, leaving the rest of the egg contents, including the mitochondria, and is replaced with the nucleus from the mother's egg.

The resulting embryo has properly functioning mitochondria from the donor, and should, in theory, be healthy.

This replacement is like replacing a battery and therefore has no impact on the DNA that determines other factors, such as appearance.

Even though the child would have a very limited genetic contribution from the third person, there is still opposition from some groups, who say such genetic manipulation carries risks.

Currently, a change in the law would be needed before it could be offered to patients.

'Vital that we listen'

Announcing the consultation, David Willetts, minister for universities and science, said: "Scientists have made an important and potentially life-saving discovery in the prevention of mitochondrial disease.

"However, as with all developments in cutting-edge science, it is vital that we to listen to the public's views before we consider any change in the law allowing it to be used."

It is hoped the consultation will be complete by the end of this year.

Sir Mark Walport, from the Wellcome Trust, said the technique might prevent previously incurable diseases.

"We welcome the opportunity to discuss with the public why we believe this technique is essential if we are to give families affected by these diseases the chance to have healthy children, something most of us take for granted."

Prof Doug Turnbull, from Newcastle University, added: "Every year we see hundreds of patients whose lives are seriously affected by mitochondrial disease.

"We want to make a major difference to the lives of these patients."

Groups representing patients and their families also welcomed the announcement.

Alastair Kent, from Genetic Alliance UK, said that the impact of mitochondrial disease could be "devastating".

He said: "It will be quite a long time before this is available as a clinical service, and our primary concern is to make sure the technique is safe.

"But it would be sensible and reasonable to offer it to prevent these conditions."

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