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HFEA launches public consultation on mitochondrial replacement techniques

17 September 2012

By Dr Sophie Pryor

Appeared in BioNews 673

The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has launched a public consultation on the social and ethical impact of new methods that could prevent the transmission of some incurable mitochondrial diseases.

The Government has asked the HFEA to seek public views on whether the two techniques, known as pronuclear transfer (PNT) and maternal spindle transfer (MST), should be made available as treatments to couples at risk of having an affected child.

The technologies are currently only permitted in research laboratories. If they are approved for use in humans, however, they could potentially allow women who carry faulty mitochondria to avoid passing down the errors to future generations.

Professor Lisa Jardine, chair of the HFEA, said: 'The decision about whether mitochondria replacement should be made available to treat patients is not only an issue of great importance to families affected by these terrible diseases, but is also one of enormous public interest'.

'We find ourselves in unchartered territory… we will use our considerable experience of explaining complicated areas of science and ethics to the public to generate a rich debate that is open to all'.

Mitochondria contain mtDNA which, if damaged, can result in one of a number of rare genetic diseases. Around one in 200 children are born with a form of mitochondrial disease each year in the UK and, while some cause no or mild symptoms, others can be severe and can lead to a shortened life expectancy. Symptoms include heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, muscle weakness and pain, poor growth and loss of motor control.

The new techniques have attracted considerable interest from the press and public, in part because they result in embryos containing genetic material from three people – nuclear DNA from a man and a woman, plus mtDNA from the mitochondrial donor.

Although some media reports have referred to 'three-parent IVF', the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which conducted an ethical review of the techniques, rejected the notion of the mitochondrial donor representing a 'third parent' finding no evidence that mitochondrial inheritance is an element of personal identity (reported in BioNews 661).

Mary Herbert, Professor of Reproductive Biology at Newcastle University and a member of the team who developed the new techniques, explained: 'We want to make a difference to the lives of our patients who live with mitochondrial diseases. These can seriously affect the quality of life of both patients and their families and it often affects several generations. If we can stop that happening it will be a tremendous help for many hundreds of people'.

'We are now undertaking experiments to test the safety and efficacy of the new techniques and hope that this will inform the HFEA's decision making process. This work may take three to five years to complete'.

Results of a poll conducted by the Progress Educational Trust indicated two-thirds of respondents supported allowing variations of IVF using genetic material from three people to prevent people from inheriting mitochondrial diseases.

The findings of the HFEA's consultation will be reported to the Department of Health in March 2013.


20 January 2014 - by Professor Sandy Raeburn 
Having worked with families affected by genetic disorders for more than 40 years, both in the UK (with its multi-faith society) and in the Sultanate of Oman (where the majority are Muslim but other religions are allowed), I have seen and looked after many people with hereditary illnesses, including those with disabling mitochondrial conditions....
01 July 2013 - by Dr Rosie Gilchrist 
The UK Government is to support the introduction of mitochondrial replacement therapy. The IVF-based procedure could allow women with mitochondrial disease the opportunity to have healthy children, by replacing their own, faulty, mitochondria with healthy mitochondria from a donor....
21 March 2013 - by Sandy Starr 
Mitochondrial replacement therapy, where a small amount of a mother's genetic material is swapped with material from a donor during IVF to avoid passing on heritable illnesses, enjoys the 'general support' of the public, the UK's fertility regulator says...
07 January 2013 - by Dr Peter Mills 
How valuable are emerging biotechnologies? Of all the questions about the prospects of the life sciences, this is the one that UK policy makers seem most eager to answer...
03 December 2012 - by Maria Sheppard 
Mitochondrial replacement has been making the headlines this year, but understanding the science behind it is no small task. Cue a whiteboard, some marker pens and two informative narrators...

25 June 2012 - by Dr Virginia Bolton 
Predictably, the publication of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' report 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...
18 June 2012 - by Dr Geoff Watts 
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has published a new report: 'Novel techniques for the prevention of mitochondrial DNA disorders: an ethical review'. Dr Geoff Watts, chair of the working party that wrote it, offers some personal reflections on a few of its key conclusions...
12 June 2012 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has published a review of the ethical issues raised by proposed IVF techniques, which aim to prevent the transmission of faulty mtDNA from mother to child. The report concludes the techniques are ethically permissible, provided further research establishes their safety....
13 February 2012 - by Professor Mary Herbert 
The advent of PGD extended the scope of IVF beyond the treatment of infertility. PGD is predominantly used to prevent transmission of genetic defects arising from mutations in nuclear DNA. However, it can also be used to reduce the risk of transmitting mutations in mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which cause a range of debilitating and life-threatening diseases...
13 February 2012 - by Dr Kristina Elvidge 
Mitochondrial diseases are soon to be brought to the attention of the general public, as the Government seeks to gauge the attitude of the nation towards a ground-breaking IVF treatment that could prevent these conditions being passed from mother to child...

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Published by the Progress Educational Trust


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