Australia may become the second nation to legalise mitochondrial donation, after its Senate endorsed the so-called 'three-person IVF' technique in a recent report.
The technique is already legal in the UK and allows women with mitochondrial disease and their partners have genetically related children, without the risk of passing on the condition.
The report also recommended that access to the appropriate UK authorities be granted to Australian couples seeking treatment, while they wait for the law to be updated. Indeed, the report states that it 'relies on the significant body of evidence gathered during the 12-year process to evaluate and ultimately legalise mitochondrial donation in the UK'.
Mitochondrial disease is a genetic condition that affects the ability of the body's cells to generate energy. Sufferers experience a wide range of symptoms including loss of hearing, diabetes, extreme fatigue, muscle wastage and, in severe forms, it can be fatal.
Mitochondria are found inside our cells and each has a small amount of their own DNA, which is separate from the rest of our genetic material found in the cell nucleus. To avoid passing on the genetic mutations of an affected woman's mitochondria to her child, the healthy nucleus of one of her eggs, fertilised in vitro, is removed and inserted into the denucleated, fertilised egg of a donor who has healthy mitochondria.
At the moment, two laws prohibit this procedure in Australia, the Research Involving Human Embryos Act and Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction Act. However, the authors of the Senate report state that 'mitochondrial donation is a form of genetic modification that was not envisioned at the time that anti-cloning laws were enacted in Australia'.
Professor Carolyn Sue from the Kolling Institute in Sydney, Australia said that most people with mitochondrial mutation do not know they carry it. 'People who are carrying a mitochondrial DNA mutation may not be affected by it, they may be severely affected by it, they may be only mildly affected by this mutation,' Professor Sue said. 'Patients who carry these mutations may often go undiagnosed, they might be in diabetic clinics or epilepsy clinics or stroke clinics, headache clinics.'
The chief executive officer of the Australian Mitochondrial Disease Foundation, Sean Murray, welcomed the report. 'Mitochondrial donation could become a reality in Australia by amending two federal laws, which are being reviewed by the National Health and Medical Research Council,' Murray said.
'You wouldn't wish mitochondrial disease on your worst enemy, so the prospect of mitochondrial donation is a beacon of hope.'