Predictably, the publication of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' report (1) supporting further research into a technique to prevent inheritance of mitochondrial disease prompted a flurry of publicity. Equally predictably, nearly every newspaper - whether broadsheet or tabloid - went for the sensationalist angle and used the 'three parent IVF' tag in their headline. The exceptions were the Guardian (2) and the Northern Echo (3).
These were the only newspapers to respond in print to the pleas of the experts involved in the discussions, who have asked repeatedly that 'all efforts should be made to discourage sensational interpretation' (4). Indeed, in his comment in BioNews last week (5), Dr Geoff Watts, who chaired the Nuffield working group, referred to the 'three parent froth', and noted in resigned tones that this debate now seems doomed to be labelled in this way.
Yet, as he pointed out, this distracts from the far more significant issue raised by the potential treatment strategy under discussion, namely that of moving a nucleus from one egg to another. This touches for the first time on the issue of changing the genetic material, albeit a minuscule amount, of the female offspring in future generations. The genetic material in question is restricted to the organelles in the cytoplasm that provide cells with energy, the mitochondria.
There is no escaping the fact that this takes us into a new realm in terms of therapy; as Dr Watts says, 'it does cross a line'. Our responsibility, therefore, is to ensure that further debate establishes beyond doubt that what is under discussion is distinct from interference with the nuclear germline; the debate concerns a technique that will enable faulty mitochondria in the egg cytoplasm to be replaced with healthy ones, but along with the mitochondria will go the tiny amount of DNA they carry.
Further discussion of this topic is imminent, because the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has been asked by Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to seek public views on the development of the same technique that was considered by the Nuffield consultation (6).
The HFEA's public consultation will be launched in September this year, preceded in July by a series of events across the UK that will give members of the public the opportunity to discuss the issues in a bit more depth. With a chance for people to come together, share their views and explore the real issues, it is essential that these discussions are informed and level-headed, and not obscured or distorted by the media's penchant for sensational catchphrases.
As a society, we have come so far since the 1980s, when public opinion was influenced by figures like Enoch Powell. His Unborn Children (Protection) bill posed a very real threat to any further innovation, any research, or the development of treatment options for the infertile or families suffering from the blight of inherited disease. The change has come through raised awareness, information and education, familiarity, and demystification of the field of reproductive technology. We owe it to those who campaigned in the 1980s and 1990s, and to future generations, to ensure that the level of discussion during this forthcoming HFEA consultation is intelligent, informed and pertinent to the real issues.