Babies with three biological parents could soon be a reality after a new £6m laboratory has been given the go ahead and funding to develop a unique IVF technique which uses DNA from a third party.
Researchers from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research in Newcastle have secured multimillion pound funding to develop the technique of transferring human DNA via IVF to help eradicate future inherited diseases.
The main aim of the research is to try and prevent incurable inherited diseases by transferring nuclear DNA between two human eggs to replace defective mitochondria DNA - the ‘batteries’ that power the cells in the body.
When these body ‘batteries’ fail, it develops mitochondrial diseases, which affect the tissues that heavily rely on energy supply, like the heart, muscles and brain.
Mitochondria diseases include Leigh Syndrome (a progressive brain disorder), muscular dystrophy, ataxia (a form of cerebral palsy) and multiple sclerosis to name a few. These diseases affect one in 5,000 people in the UK and are always passed on from the mother and then onto future generations.
The technique in question involves transferring nuclear DNA from the mother’s egg to a donor egg containing normal mitochondria. This can be done via IVF either before or after fertilisation.
However, the controversial technique has divided health experts because it means the child will inherit a tiny fraction of the third party’s genetic mitochondria coding, meaning they’ll have genetic material from three biological parents.
“If this technology proves to be as safe as IVF and as effective as preliminary studies show, yes, I think we could totally prevent transmission of these diseases,” Doug Turnball, professor of Neurology from the University said in a conference at the Wellcome Trust.
Rachel Cutting, Chair of the Association of Clinical Embryologists, adds: "At ACE, we welcome the news that there will be a public consultation on using this new Technology. If it's proved to be safe and gains public support, this technique could be a significant step forward in preventing incurable mitochondrial diseases," she told The Huffington Post.
"Mitochondria, which are the structures in a cell that produce energy, and the small amount of DNA they contain are inherited exclusively from the mother’s egg. Unfortunately, mitochondria sometimes fail to work properly and this can lead to diseases such as muscular dystrophy.
"If a fertilised egg has unhealthy mitochondria, this cutting-edge technique allows embryologists to remove the two pronuclei, which is the part of the fertilised egg that contains the parent's genetic information, and replace it into a donated egg with healthy mitochondria that has had its nucleus removed. This results in an embryo which is genetically related to its parents but that will not inherit the mitochondrial disease.
"We welcome advances in science that look to improve the health and wellbeing of those conceived as a result of assisted conception and that offer hope to families who would otherwise have to make an impossible decision between childlessness and risk of serious illness for their child."
However, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) believes this new technique is unethical and “macabre”.
"These macabre experiments are both destructive and dangerous and therefore unethical. The vast majority of embryonic children created in the laboratory are killed because they do not meet the 'quality control' requirements dictated by scientists involved in such increasingly macabre experiments,” explains Anthony Ozimic, from the SPUC.
"It doesn't matter how an embryonic child is created, he or she is still an innocent member of the human family and therefore has the right to life.
“Scientists should abandon the spurious field of destructive embryo experimentation and instead promote the ethical alternative of adult stem cell research, which is already providing cures and treatments for the same conditions", adds Mr Ozimic.
Josephine Quintavalle, from the group Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core) adds: "IVF is meant to mimic nature but this is very, very far removed from nature. Even psychologically it's going to do harm because a child is going to realise what was done to create it. The greatest wisdom is sometimes just to say 'no'."
Ultimately, it will be down to the government to decide whether this procedure should be allowed in general clinics on the NHS. If it is approved, it could be available in the UK in as little as three years.