The controversial technique known as "three-parent IVF" came a step closer yesterday after the Department of Health asked the fertility regulator to conduct a public consultation into its acceptability.
At the same time the Wellcome Trust announced extra funds to expand research into the technique, which involves using genetic material from three parents – two women and a man – to create a baby.
The procedure, currently banned in the UK, is aimed at helping the estimated 12,000 people who are living with mitochondrial disease – defects in the small structures called mitochondria that surround the cell nucleus.
The disease is inherited but is only passed down the maternal line. About 100 babies are born each year with a severe form of the disease, for which there is no cure, with many dying in infancy.
The proposed procedure involves removing the nucleus from an affected woman's egg, transferring it to the shell of an egg provided by a female donor who has healthy mitochondria, and then fertilising it with the sperm of the affected woman's partner. The resulting baby would have genetic characteristics chiefly from its mother and father plus some from the mitochondria of its third parent, who provided the donor egg.
An alternative method involves fertilising the woman's egg with her partner's sperm before transfer into the donor egg.
Announcing the consultation, Public Health Minister Anne Milton said: "Mitochondrial disease... can have a devastating impact on the people who inherit it. Scientists have developed a new procedure to stop these diseases being passed on. But such a procedure would not be allowed... under current law, so we are consulting the public as to whether we should change the law."
Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, announced a £4.4 million grant towards the £5.8m cost of building a new centre at Newcastle University to lead research into mitochondrial disease.
Doug Turnbull, Professor of neurology at the university, who will become the centre's director, said: "If this technology proves to be as safe as IVF and as effective as preliminary studies show, I think we could totally prevent transmission of these diseases."
The public consultation by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority will start later this year.
The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said: "These macabre experiments are both destructive and dangerous and therefore unethical. Scientists should abandon the spurious field of destructive embryo experimentation and instead promote the ethical alternative of adult stem-cell research, which is already providing cures and treatments for the same conditions."
Case study: 'This research could end the suffering'
Nicola Bardett, 33, watched her mother die in October 2009, aged 52. She was deaf, having seizures, a bowel disorder and in her final months developed dementia. Now Nicola fears for herself and three-year-old son, Luke. A mitochondrial disease – MELAS – runs in the family
"At some point I will develop symptoms but the doctors cannot tell me what or when. This is not just about individuals – it is whole families affected, generation after generation. I have to watch my family suffer. This research could interrupt that process – and potentially let people have children completely free of the disease. That would be incredible – it could wipe out this problem from future generations and from every other family who suffers the same problem."