An experimental genetic technique to prevent serious diseases from passing between mother and child is to receive £5.8 million funding. The Wellcome Trust is contributing £4.4 million to the new Centre for Mitochondrial Research at Newcastle University.
Currently not permitted for clinical use under UK law, the Government has announced it will seek public opinion on the procedure, and an independent report to be published by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics will consider the underlying ethical issues.
Mitochondria are the parts of a cell that generate its energy, and contain a small number of genes. Just as mutations in chromosomal DNA can be passed through families, errors in mitochondrial DNA can be inherited.
The technique is applied at the point of reproduction. If a mother has faulty mitochondrial genes, the nucleus (containing the chromosomal DNA, and so most of your genes) can be removed from her egg. This is then transferred to a healthy donor egg, which has had its own nucleus removed. This egg is fertilised using IVF just before or after this step.
In the UK, an estimated one in 250 births, and approximately 12,000 adults, are affected by mitochondrial diseases. Symptoms can be very severe, causing heart and liver failure, mental disorders and deterioration of muscle tissue.
'Scientists have made an important and potentially life-saving discovery', Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts says. 'However, as with all developments in cutting-edge science, it is vital that we to listen to the public's views before we consider any change in the law'.
The Government has tasked the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and Sciencewise with carrying out the public consultation, which will begin later this year.
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has asked for the public and especially those affected directly by the issue to contribute evidence. Dr Geoff Watts, who is chairing the inquiry, explains that these techniques 'involve making genetic changes that will be passed on to all subsequent generations', making it important to consider all the ethical implications.
As there are so few mitochondrial genes that produce proteins (13, compared to around 23,000 from the chromosomal DNA), the technique should have no effect on the characteristics of a child, such as appearance.
Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, compared it to changing the battery in a camera, and told the Times: 'Medical procedures that introduce a donor's biological material into the body are… long accepted. If a child with donated mitochondria can be said to have three parents, then the recipient of a heart transplant could be said to have four'.
The HFEA issued a report last year suggesting that further experiments to test safety should be carried out before the technique is made available as a treatment. Professor Doug Turnbull, director of the new centre and one of the scientists who developed the method, says: 'This new funding will enable us to take forward essential experiments'. He hopes to demonstrate that the techniques involved are both safe and effective.