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Delay to avoiding mitochondrial disease in babies

3 May 2011
Appeared in BioNews 605

Further research is needed into the safety and effectiveness of techniques to prevent children being born with mitochondrial disease, a Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) report has concluded.

The report was commissioned by UK Health Secretary Andrew Lansley to inform his decision about whether to hold a public consultation on the issue.

The HFEA-appointed panel that wrote the report requested that three experimental hurdles be cleared before permitting the techniques to be used to treat patients. The panel did not find evidence that the treatments were unsafe.

The Progress Educational Trust, Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust and other bodies wrote an open letter to UK Health Secretary Andrew Lansley after the report's publication.

The letter urged the UK Government to publish a timetable for the drafting of regulations so that the techniques can be used in the clinic once the committee's hurdles have been vaulted.

Dr Robin Lovell-Badge, co-chair of the review panel, defended its conclusions. Dr Lovell-Badge anticipates that the further experimentation requirements will take little over a year to be met.

'Some people seem to be taking our report as negative and hesitant - it wasn't meant to be at all. It was meant to say, just gather a little bit more information', he said.

The report reviewed two techniques - maternal spindle transfer and pronuclear transfer. Both involve exchanging defective mitochondria with healthy mitochondria from a donor egg. The healthy donor egg's mitochondrial DNA would be passed to future generations in place of the mother's defective mitochondrial DNA.

The panel did not consider the ethical and legal implications of these techniques, only their safety and effectiveness.

It is illegal in the UK to alter nuclear DNA in a human embryo. But Parliament included regulation making powers in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 to allow techniques to avoid mitochondrial disease to be used in the clinic if they could be shown to be safe and effective.

Unlike nuclear DNA, mitochondrial DNA only encodes information for cell function, not distinguishing characteristics such as appearance or personality.

Mitochondrial diseases can include fatal liver, neurological and heart conditions. They to the birth of about 100 severely disabled children every year.

Embryo DNA swaps appear safe so far, committee tells British government
The Great Beyond, Nature blog |  19 April 2011
Letter to the Secretary of State for Health about Treatments to Avoid Transmission of Mitochondrial Disease
Progress Educational Trust |  19 April 2011
Review of scientific methods to avoid mitochondrial disease
HFEA |  18 April 2011
Scientists seek to implant embryos with genetic material from three parents
Guardian |  19 April 2011
Three-parent babies on the way, say IVF experts
Independent |  20 April 2011
17 September 2012 - by Sarah Norcross 
Mitochondria don't normally get much press attention, they like to keep a low profile generating energy in the cells and leave nuclear DNA to grab the headlines...
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...
6 June 2011 - by Dr Marianne Kennedy 
Women at risk of passing on mitochondrial disease to their children could use PGD to give birth to an unaffected child. The scientists at Maastricht University Medical Centre in the Netherlands claim their work has the potential to prevent the transmission of mitochondrial diseases...
14 March 2011 - by MacKenna Roberts 
Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley has asked the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to convene an expert group 'to assess the effectiveness and safety' of a fertility treatment that would enable children to be born without potentially devastating, incurable mitochondrial diseases.
19 April 2010 - by Ruth Pidsley 
A team of researchers at Newcastle University in the UK has been successful in attempts to transfer genetic material from one newly fertilised human egg to another without carrying over the egg's mitochondria (the energy-producing structures of a cell)...
19 April 2010 - by Dr Kristina Mills and Dr Marita Pohlschmidt 
Research at Newcastle University funded by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign has shown that it might be possible to prevent mitochondrial diseases being passed from mother to child...
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