Published: Tuesday 3rd February 2015 by The News Editor
Battle lines are being drawn for an historic Commons debate today that could see Britain become the first country in the world to permit the creation of IVF babies with DNA from three different people.
MPs will have a free vote at the end of the 90-minute debate on a controversial amendment to the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.
If they back the change, mitochondrial donation techniques aimed at preventing serious inherited diseases will be legalised.
The debate has divided opinion between experts and charities backing the treatments and opponents who say the move marks the start of a slippery slope towards “designer” babies.
Research has shown that mitochondrial donation could potentially help almost 2,500 women of reproductive age in the UK.
All are at risk of transmitting harmful DNA mutations in the mitochondria, tiny rod-liked power plants in cells, onto their children and future generations.
Mitochondrial donation would allow children – described by critics as “three parent babies” – to be conceived with genetic material from a trio of individuals.
As well as receiving normal “nuclear” DNA from its mother and father, a child would also have a minuscule amount of healthy mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) from a woman donor.
Mitochondrial diseases can be devastating, affecting major organs and causing symptoms ranging from poor vision to diabetes and muscle wasting.
International charities and campaigners have written an open letter to MPs urging them to vote for the change in the law, saying it “offers families the first glimmer of hope that they might be able to have a baby that will live without pain and suffering”.
Signatories include groups from the US, France, Germany, Spain and Australia. They said: “Mitochondrial disease is unimaginably cruel. It strips our children of the skills they have learned, inflicts pain that cannot be managed, and tires their organs one by one until their little bodies cannot go on any more.”
Other supporters include IVF pioneer and broadcaster Lord Winston, who told the Daily Telegraph the procedure was no more sinister than a blood transfusion, and Professor Lisa Jardine, former Chair of fertility regulator the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).
Until now any tampering with “germline” DNA – genetic material in sperm and eggs that is inherited – has been unlawful.
The new regulations would empower the HFEA to grant licences allowing mitochondrial donation for the first time.
Scientists at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research at Newcastle University are among those pioneering mitochondrial donation and will be the first to offer the treatment if it gets the go-ahead.
A study from the group recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that 2,473 women in the UK are at risk of passing on a potentially lethal mitochondrial disease to their children.
Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, the UK’s biggest research charity, said: “Over the past seven years, Britain has been engaged in an exemplary process for evaluating scientific, ethical and public opinion about mitochondrial donation, which has revealed broad support on all three fronts. The Government is right to ask Parliament to support regulations that will allow the law to catch up with public and scientific opinion, and we urge MPs and peers to vote for them.”
Prof Jardine went on the offensive against those who maintain that the decision is being rushed.
She said: ” Between 2011 and 2014, while I was its chair, the HFEA was responsible for a carefully designed and thorough consultation on mitochondrial replacement – one of the most extensive and impressive public consultations ever conducted.
“We consulted with the public, clinicians, ethicists, religious groups and researchers, online and face to face. We commissioned three separate reviews of the science, led by a panel of the most distinguished experts.
“I would maintain that this process and its outcome were an example of what the very best evidence based policy looks like. The suggestion in the press this week that mitochondrial replacement therapy has not been thoroughly reviewed, and that the move to legalise the process is over-hasty, beggars belief.”
She was backed by Robert Meadowcroft, chief executive of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, which supports families affected by mitochondrial disease. He said: “This debate will be a landmark moment for families affected by mitochondrial disease who could benefit from this IVF technique. A vote in favour of regulations could give women the chance to have a healthy child without the fear of passing on this painful, debilitating condition.
“This is an important step and while we understand some people will have reservations, this technique has moved successfully through the necessary ethical and public reviews, and a positive result in this debate is now vital to allow further progress.”
Opponents, including pro-life and church groups, argue that the procedures are not known to be safe and cross an important ethical boundary.
Dr David King, director of the watchdog group Human Genetics Alert, said: “This is not about protecting embryos but about protecting children from the severe health risks of these unnecessary techniques and protecting everyone from the eugenic designer baby future that will follow from this.
“The public has been grossly misled about both the science and the ethics of these techniques by their advocates. Mitochondrial are not ‘just batteries’. The choice is not about allowing the techniques or allowing babies to suffer.
“These diseases can be prevented through conventional egg donation – a reliable method that doesn’t risk the child’s health. All that these dangerous experimental techniques add is that that they allow the mother to be a genetic parent, which is not a medical benefit for anyone.
“Advocates say we shouldn’t worry about ‘slippery slopes’. Yet in my experience, they are the very same people who, a few years later, push us to take the next step and the one after that. And so it goes on, and they call it progress. If we want to avoid the nightmare designer baby future we must draw the line here.”
He maintained that the HFEA’s consultation process was “utterly biased” in favour of the new legislation and the regulator had refused to consider the risks.
Josephine Quintavalle, from the pro-life organisation Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core), said: “It will be a shameful day for robust, objective and virtuous science if the UK Parliament votes in favour of germline genetic modification of the human embryo. The proponents arguments are flawed scientifically and ethically, and we need to find cures for mitochondrial diseases which do not rely on destructive manipulation of early human life.”
The Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales is also staunchly opposed to the move. Bishop John Sherrington, from the church’s Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship, said: “It seems extraordinary that a licence should be sought for a radical new technique affecting future generations without first conducting a clinical trial.
“There are also serious ethical objections to this procedure which involves the destruction of human embryos as part of the process.
“This is a very serious step which Parliament should not rush into taking.”
The Church of England is more ambivalent but its influential Mission and Public Affairs (MPA) division of the Archbishops’ Council has raised concerns that the ethical issues involved “have not been sufficiently explored”. It has also questioned the speed of the move towards legislation.
One of the church’s leading figures, Rev Dr Brendan McCarthy, its national adviser on medical ethics, reportedly told the Daily Telegraph: “Without a clearer picture of the role mitochondria play in the transfer of hereditary characteristics, the Church does not feel it would be responsible to change the law at this time.”
Published: Tuesday 3rd February 2015 by The News Editor