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.