Transplant creates embryos with three parents

Three-parent embryos could lead to first genetically altered babies

Ten human embryos each containing the DNA from one man and two women have been created in a project that could see the first genetically altered babies being born in Britain.

The new form of gene transplant, created by Professor Doug Turnbull’s team at the University of Newcastle, may not be too popular with pro-life campaigners, but offers the first realistic hope for the treatment of an entire range of genetic diseases.

Lord Walton of Detchant has tabled an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that would allow this radical treatment to be used without seeking the permission of Parliament by seeking the approval of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority instead.

Although the Government rejected it on Monday, it assured Lord Walton there would be ‘full public consideration’ of the issue.

Professor Doug Turnbull’s team hopes to combine IVF with cell surgery to wipe out diseases caused by the equivalent of faulty ‘batteries’ in cells, called mitochondria, that affect one person in every 6,500 with a group of conditions, from fatal liver failure, stroke-like episodes, blindness, mental retardation with intractable epilepsy, muscle weakness, diabetes and deafness. Hundreds of families in Britain suffer from these incurable diseases.

The team presented preliminary work to the Medical Research Council Centre for Neuromuscular Diseases, London, at the end of last week and shown that it works in experiments with abnormal embryos left over from fertility treatment.

The Newcastle team wants to employ the method to wipe out 50 or so metabolic disorders linked to faults in a small set of 37 genes outside the nucleus of cells which itself contains DNA – nuclear DNA that is a blend of around 25,000 genes from mother and father that are the focus of most conventional research on disease and heredity.

In effect, the new technique would be like changing a battery in a computer without affecting the hard disk, the nuclear DNA that influences our appearance and other characteristics, so that an affected woman does not pass them on to her children.

Josephine Quintavalle of the pro-life group Comment on Reproductive Ethics says she is ‘absolutely terrified’ at the liberality of UK regulations. ‘It is human beings that they are experimenting with.’ She and other opponents have attacked the work an unacceptable step towards the creation of ‘designer babies’ – a ‘baby with two mothers’ who may threaten the family unit.

But proponents, the genes that control our appearance and influence disease, personality and a host of other traits are left unchanged by the procedure: the mitochondria carry no information that defines any human attributes so they cannot be ‘parental’ any more than people with a kidney transplant have extra parents because a transplanted kidney carries DNA from the donor.

Dr Marita Pohlschmit, Director of Research, Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, says: ‘Mitochondrial myopathies are a group of complex and severe diseases. This can make it very difficult for clinicians to provide genetic counselling and give patients and accurate prognosis.

‘The Muscular Dystrophy Campaign has supported Professor Turnbull’s work for many years and we now feel confident that parents may be given the option of not having an affected child through preventing the transmission of the disease from one generation to the next.’

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