IVF techniques that would for the first time permit the transfer
of genetically modified embryos into the womb have been approved by
the Government, despite public unease,.
Regulations to allow mitochondrial donation were laid before the
House of Commons on 17 December by the Health Minister, Jane
Ellison. The method has been developed to prevent women who suffer
from a form of mitochondrial disease, caused by faults in the DNA
of mitochondria, from passing it on to their children.
IVF is used to fertilise a mother's egg, containing "unhealthy"
mitochondria, with the father's sperm. The nucleus of the
fertilised egg is then collected and transplanted into a donor egg
that contains healthy mitochondria, but with its own nucleus
removed. More than 99 per cent of the child's genes would come from
the mother and father, and less than one per cent would come from
the donor, prompting some to use the term "three-parent baby".
The Government argues that it has carried out a "comprehensive
and transparent process . . . to review the public acceptability of
mitochondrial donation, and the ongoing evidence of safety and
In October, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority
(HFEA) said that the "public dialogue exercise" it had conducted
indicated that there was "general support" for permitting the
technique. An expert scientific panel, convened to review the
safety of the technique, concluded that there was no evidence to
show that it was unsafe.
The response of the Church of England's Mission and Public
Affairs Council to the consultation recommended caution: "While
supportive, in principle, of both maternal spindle transfer and
pro-nuclear transfer, we are uncertain that enough is, as yet,
known about the roles that mitochondria play. . .
"If it can be demonstrated, beyond reasonable doubt, that
mitochondria play no part in the transmission of hereditary
characteristics, a change in the law is, in our opinion,
permissible. If mitochondria do play a role greater than that
currently understood, further consultation would be necessary
before any change in the law ought to be considered."
The submission also notes that research into the techniques, and
the techniques themselves, will require the destruction of embryos,
causing "ethical problems for some people".
The chief executive of CARE (Christian Action Research and
Education), Nola Leach, said last month that the methods raised
"profound ethical and identity questions", and "huge, unanswered
safety concerns". A poll commissioned from ComRes in September
suggested that support for a change in the law had fallen from 35
per cent in February, to 18 per cent.