When science is at its best, it pushes the boundaries of what is possible and makes us think about the big questions. Even if the issues it raises are deeply uncomfortable.
That has certainly been the case with the debate in the UK over what have been dubbed ‘three parent babies’, where ethical beliefs have collided with strong scientific evidence. The idea of using genetic material from a second mother to create a baby has evoked passionate reactions from supporters and opponents alike, prompted by the pioneering work of Newcastle University scientists seeking to protect babies from serious inherited mitochondrial diseases.
Known as ‘mitochondrial donation’, the techniques involves removing faulty mitochondria inherited from the mother and replacing them with the healthy mitochondria of another woman. The baby’s nuclear DNA, containing 99.9% of genetic material from the mother and father, remains unchanged but the procedure has still proved controversial and the debate has gone far beyond the basic science. Nevertheless, having weighed up evidence for and against, Peers sitting in the House of Lords in February approved historic legislation which would see Britain take advantage of the work by becoming the first country in the world to create three-parent babies, despite fears that children could be born sterile.
The vote came after Health Minister Lord Howe urged Lords to pass an amendment to the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act which would permit the controversial IVF techniques aimed at preventing the diseases. The decision, taken first by MPs then backed by the Lords, enables the Human Fertilisation and Embrology Authority (HFEA)to consider granting licences to use the new IVF-based technique developed by scientists at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research at Newcastle University. Although the three-parent baby technique could save lives, opponents, including church leaders and pro-life groups, have warned that the change has been brought about too hastily and paves the way for designer babies.
In the Lords debate, for example, Lord Deben called for a delay and asked Peers to form a committee to look at the safety and legality of the procedure. He warned that children born from the technique could be sterile and argued that the majority of the public did not agree with the procedure. Former Attorney General Baroness Scotland also said the legislation had been rushed through but Lord Howe, dismissing the concerns, said that mitochondrial replacement could ‘give real hope to families’. He said: “It would be cruel and perverse to deny them that opportunity for any longer than necessary.” Lord Winston, one of Britain’s leading fertility experts, also backed the law, saying: “ And Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies said: “It would give these women their own children and these families hope, and I believe this is right.
“We have a very strong regulatory system that would regulate first the service and secondly would review every individual case before they could happen.” Scientists at Newcastle University have welcomed the news that politicians have voted for a change in the law. Professor Doug Turnbull, Professor of Neurology and a consultant at Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Newcastle University, said: “This is wonderful news for patients and families affected by mitochondrial disease. “Mitochondrial donation has undergone essential scientific, ethical and parliamentary scrutiny. I am delighted that the House of Lords supported the regulations with such enthusiasm.” Mitochondrial diseases are caused by inherited mutations in the DNA contained in mitochondria – tiny structures present in every cell that generate energy.
Every year, about one in 6,500 children are born with severe mitochondrial diseases, which can be devastating and particularly affect tissues that have high energy demands – brain, muscle (including heart), liver and kidney and can also lead to death in early infancy. Professor Alison Murdoch, Head of Newcastle Fertility Centre at Life, part of the Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “For 10 years we have publically discussed mitochondrial donation to explain how it could help patients whose families are blighted by the consequences of mitochondrial abnormalities. “Whilst acknowledging the views of those who have a fundamental objection to our work, Parliament has determined that we should continue. We hope that opponents will accept its democratic decision. “
“The science will be reviewed and, if accepted, we hope to be able to submit a treatment application to the HFEA when regulatory policies have been determined.“ Behind it all lies true human tragedy. One mother who knows first hand about the devastating effects is Sharon Bernardi, who lost all seven of her children to mitochondrial disease. She said of the breakthrough: ”This is the best thing in the world that could have happened. It is such good news for affected families, like winning the lottery a thousand time over. “Professor Turnbull has known me and my family for many years and I believe that being part of our story spurred him on.”
“For 10 years we have publically discussed mitochondrial donation to explain how it could help patients whose families are blighted by the consequences of mitochondrial abnormalities. Whilst acknowledging the views of those who have a fundamental objection to our work, Parliament has determined that we should continue. We hope that opponents will accept its democratic decision. The science will be reviewed and, if accepted, we hope to be able to submit a treatment application to the HFEA when regulatory policies have been determined.” Professor Alison Murdoch Head of Newcastle Fertility Centre at Life