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£5.8m boost for mitochondrial disease research

23 January 2012
Appeared in BioNews 641

An experimental genetic technique to prevent serious diseases from passing between mother and child is to receive £5.8 million funding. The Wellcome Trust is contributing £4.4 million to the new Centre for Mitochondrial Research at Newcastle University.

Currently not permitted for clinical use under UK law, the Government has announced it will seek public opinion on the procedure, and an independent report to be published by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics will consider the underlying ethical issues.

Mitochondria are the parts of a cell that generate its energy, and contain a small number of genes. Just as mutations in chromosomal DNA can be passed through families, errors in mitochondrial DNA can be inherited.

The technique is applied at the point of reproduction. If a mother has faulty mitochondrial genes, the nucleus (containing the chromosomal DNA, and so most of your genes) can be removed from her egg. This is then transferred to a healthy donor egg, which has had its own nucleus removed. This egg is fertilised using IVF just before or after this step.

In the UK, an estimated one in 250 births, and approximately 12,000 adults, are affected by mitochondrial diseases. Symptoms can be very severe, causing heart and liver failure, mental disorders and deterioration of muscle tissue.

'Scientists have made an important and potentially life-saving discovery', Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts says. 'However, as with all developments in cutting-edge science, it is vital that we to listen to the public's views before we consider any change in the law'.

The Government has tasked the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and Sciencewise with carrying out the public consultation, which will begin later this year.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has asked for the public and especially those affected directly by the issue to contribute evidence. Dr Geoff Watts, who is chairing the inquiry, explains that these techniques 'involve making genetic changes that will be passed on to all subsequent generations', making it important to consider all the ethical implications.

As there are so few mitochondrial genes that produce proteins (13, compared to around 23,000 from the chromosomal DNA), the technique should have no effect on the characteristics of a child, such as appearance.

Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, compared it to changing the battery in a camera, and told the Times: 'Medical procedures that introduce a donor's biological material into the body are… long accepted. If a child with donated mitochondria can be said to have three parents, then the recipient of a heart transplant could be said to have four'.

The HFEA issued a report last year suggesting that further experiments to test safety should be carried out before the technique is made available as a treatment. Professor Doug Turnbull, director of the new centre and one of the scientists who developed the method, says: 'This new funding will enable us to take forward essential experiments'. He hopes to demonstrate that the techniques involved are both safe and effective.

Call for evidence on mitochondrial donation
Nuffield Council on Bioethics |  19 January 2012
Charity Funding Boosts Controversial Therapy for Mitochondrial Disease
Science News Insider |  19 January 2012
Egg nucleus swaps get funding and regulatory boost in the UK
Nature News Blog |  19 January 2012
Government to seek public views on changing the law to find cures for inherited diseases
BIS/DH Press Release |  18 January 2012
Techniques to prevent transmission of mitochondrial diseases to be assessed in new £5.8 million Wellcome Trust centre
Wellcome Trust |  19 January 2012
'Three-person IVF' technique moves closer
BBC |  19 January 2012
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 Starza-Allen 
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....
28 May 2012 - by Dr Victoria Burchell 
As a promotional tool to advertise the research funded by the Wellcome Trust, this short film aims both to enthuse and to inform. In both respects it's relatively successful, combining clear and engaging explanations of two projects with smart graphics and shots of impressive-looking equipment. Unfortunately, a slow and rather confusing start may discourage some viewers from reaching the main messages, all of which are in the second half...
20 February 2012 - by Victoria Kay 
The UK's fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), has amassed cash reserves of around £3.4 million from charges to the clinics it licenses, prompting calls for the money to be given back to those seeking IVF treatment....
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...
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...
19 April 2010 - by Dr Calum MacKellar 
The announcement that scientists at the University of Newcastle have developed a new procedure that could eventually help women with dysfunctional mitochondria (the energy source of the cell), made headline news across the world...
15 November 2009 - by Dr Rebecca Robey 
A controversial new technique to improve the quality of eggs from older women undergoing IVF is being developed by Japanese scientists. Because the procedure involves using eggs from two women to create a single viable egg for fertilisation, it has sparked a media furore over the potential creation of what have been inaccurately dubbed 'three-parent embryos'....
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