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Science

'Three-way IVF' faces public consultation

UK fertility researchers say they can prevent mitochondrial disease by modifying human DNA. The treatment is seen as controversial and needs parliamentary approval before it can be used.

Every year, thousands of people are born with mitochondrial disease - a condition which can affect how vital organs operate. Mary Austin's 11 year old son, Adam suffers from the disease.

"This has affected Adam's kidney and I was told he could end up needing a heart transplant somewhere down the line," she says in a campaign video released by the Wellcome Trust.

Marie Austin has the gene for mitochondrial disease, which despite not affecting her own health has affected her eggs. They have what is known as deformed mitochondria.

Once an egg is fertilized, mitochondria are responsible for the development of vital organs in humans like the heart, kidneys, lungs, and brain. One in every 200 children born in the UK has a form of the disease, which is only passed on by mothers.

Bioethicists voice concern

In the UK, researchers say they have now found a way to prevent mitochondrial disease by transplanting the nucleus of an embryo from a mother and father into a healthy egg, which is donated by a third person.

A child born via this technique would have the DNA of three people - and this is why some have called the technique the three parent IVF solution. The three parents are not equal. The resulting child's DNA would contain about 35 genes from the donor - out of more than 35,000 genes overall.

But the proposed technique is considered controversial and the UK's Human Fertility and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has launched a public consultation process.

Marie Austin welcomes the treatment. It might prevent her seven year old daughter, who is also a carrier of the disease, from passing it onto any children of her own.

But the treatment has come under fire from bioethicists.

"This technique uses nuclear transfer, which is to say, taking the nucleus from one cell and putting it into another - that's the same technique that's used in cloning," says David King from Human Genetics Alert. "And we know that there are very severe health problems with cloned animals."

Some cloned animals, says King, are aborted before they are born, some are born twice the normal size or with deformities, and others die shortly after birth.

King says simple egg donation provides a better solution for people like Marie Austin because it is safe and "perfectly ethical."

"Actually, that risk to the child's health is being taken only for the sake that the mother will be genetically related to her child," says King.

Balancing the law against the science

But this three-way IVF treatment has a long way to go before it can be used, and there is a good chance that it may not be approved.

Current UK law handles sperm and egg donations differently from blood, organ and tissue donations. For instance, in the case of sperm and egg donations, records are kept on donors to enable them to be contacted once a respective child turns the age of 16.

On this and other issues, HFEA is consulting the public.

"One of the questions we are keen to ask is should the mitochondria donor be similarly contactable or should this be like blood or bone marrow donation," says HFEA's chief executive, Peter Thompson.

The public consultation runs until December. It aims to determine whether there is enough public support for mitochondrial replacement.

The results will be presented to the British Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, in spring 2013.

But David King doubts HFEA's impartial.

"The experience with these consultations is that the policy is decided before the consultation is made," says King.

A website created for the public consultation provides views supporting and opposing the treatment.

"We think this is uncharted territory," says Thompson, "and it is good for politics if you like that as many people as possible are given an opportunity to contribute to this consultation."

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