'Three-parent' baby hurdle overcome
Britain could become the first country in the world to permit babies to be born with three genetic parents by the end of next year.
A landmark decision by the Department of Health opens the door to controversial treatments for inherited diseases that make use of donated DNA from a second donor "mother".
New regulations to fertility law allowing the procedures will be issued for public consultation later this year and then debated in Parliament. If MPs find them ethically acceptable the first patients could be treated within months. It is envisaged that between five and 10 "three-parent" babies would be born each year.
Allowing the currently illegal techniques would mark a turning point because it means, for the first time ever, altering the "germ line" made up of inherited DNA. Experts point out that only the tiny amount of DNA in a cell's "battery packs", the mitochondria, would be changed. DNA in the nucleus, which determines individual characteristics such as facial features and eye colour, would remain intact. But some critics believe the move would mark a slippery slope leading to "designer babies" and eugenics.
The aim of the IVF treatments is to stamp out serious mitochondrial diseases which can be passed from a mother to her children. Around one in 200 babies are born each year in the UK with defects in the mitochondria, rod-like bodies that supply cells with energy. One in 6,500 ican suffer potentially life-threatening diseases. The new techniques result in defective mitochondrial DNA being replaced by a healthy version from a female donor.
A recent public consultation found that 56% of those questioned were "very" or "fairly" positive about the treatments. Patient focus group participants were said to be "extremely positive". Draft regulations making the UK the first country in the world to offer the treatments to women with a family history of mitochondrial disease will be published later this year, said the Department of Health.
Chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies said: "Scientists have developed groundbreaking new procedures which could stop these diseases being passed on, bringing hope to many families seeking to prevent their future children inheriting them. It's only right that we look to introduce this life-saving treatment as soon as we can."
Josephine Quintavalle, from the group Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core), said the proposals were already causing worldwide concern, adding: "This controversial announcement - presented simply as innovative genetic treatment when it is in effect an endorsement of highly contentious germ line modification of the human embryo - is hardly unexpected, given the enthusiasm already shown by both the Nuffield Council (on Bioethics) and the HFEA."
Dr David King, director of Human Genetics Alert which strongly opposes the treatments, also spoke out, adding: "These techniques are unnecessary and unsafe and were in fact rejected by the majority of consultation responses. It is a disaster that the decision to cross the line that will eventually lead to a eugenic designer baby market should be taken on the basis of an utterly biased and inadequate consultation."
The HFEA refuted Dr King's comments, insisting that the treatments had broad public support. In a statement, the authority said: "The consultation was made up of multiple strands, of which only one element showed a majority view against mitochondria replacement being made available as a treatment option for those affected by mitochondria disease. The consultation reports show that those people tended to have broader concerns about the manipulation or destruction of human embryos in treatment."