UK doctors have been given permission to help a couple avoid passing on hereditary breast cancer to their children, the Times newspaper has reported. Paul Serhal, of University College London, has been granted a licence by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to select embryos free from the BRCA1 gene mutation that causes the condition in the family. The case is the first of its type, following the HFEA's decision last May to allow the use of PGD for 'lower penetrance' mutations that do not always cause disease.
PGD involves taking a single cell from a 2-4 day old embryo, performing a genetic or chromosome test on that cell, and then returning one or two unaffected embryos to the womb. In the UK, the use of PGD is regulated by the HFEA, which licenses the procedure on a case-by-case basis. Previously, it has only permitted the use of PGD for fully 'penetrant' gene mutations that always result in a serious illness, usually in childhood. In contrast, women with mutations in the genes BRCA1 or BRCA2 face up to an 85 per cent chance of developing cancer in their lifetime, often in their thirties or forties.
The licence application followed a year of research by the UCL team, to identify the precise BRCA1 gene mutation that is triggering the disease in the patient's family. Mr Serhal told the newspaper: 'This is an important milestone decision, because it has accepted the principle that this technique is appropriate for a gene that has an 80 per cent risk. It is a bold step by the HFEA, which means this family can root out a gene that has caused death and disease in generation after generation'.
The couple are not planning to start treatment until next year, however, as they are waiting to find out whether their local primary care trust will pay for the procedure. According to the Times, a second couple is still waiting for the HFEA's decision on whether Mr Serhal's team can test their embryos for a mutation in the same gene. If the licence application is granted, they plan to start treatment immediately.