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Why the mitochondria debate shouldn't be left to the popular media

25 June 2012
By Dr Virginia Bolton
Consultant embryologist at Guy's Hospital's Assisted Conception Unit and co-founder, Progress Educational Trust
Appeared in BioNews 662

Predictably, the publication of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' report (1) 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. The exceptions were the Guardian (2) and the Northern Echo (3).

These were the only newspapers to respond in print to the pleas of the experts involved in the discussions, who have asked repeatedly that 'all efforts should be made to discourage sensational interpretation' (4). Indeed, in his comment in BioNews last week (5), Dr Geoff Watts, who chaired the Nuffield working group, referred to the 'three parent froth', and noted in resigned tones that this debate now seems doomed to be labelled in this way.

Yet, as he pointed out, this distracts from the far more significant issue raised by the potential treatment strategy under discussion, namely that of moving a nucleus from one egg to another. This touches for the first time on the issue of changing the genetic material, albeit a minuscule amount, of the female offspring in future generations. The genetic material in question is restricted to the organelles in the cytoplasm that provide cells with energy, the mitochondria.

There is no escaping the fact that this takes us into a new realm in terms of therapy; as Dr Watts says, 'it does cross a line'. Our responsibility, therefore, is to ensure that further debate establishes beyond doubt that what is under discussion is distinct from interference with the nuclear germline; the debate concerns a technique that will enable faulty mitochondria in the egg cytoplasm to be replaced with healthy ones, but along with the mitochondria will go the tiny amount of DNA they carry.

Further discussion of this topic is imminent, because the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has been asked by Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to seek public views on the development of the same technique that was considered by the Nuffield consultation (6).

The HFEA's public consultation will be launched in September this year, preceded in July by a series of events across the UK that will give members of the public the opportunity to discuss the issues in a bit more depth. With a chance for people to come together, share their views and explore the real issues, it is essential that these discussions are informed and level-headed, and not obscured or distorted by the media's penchant for sensational catchphrases.

As a society, we have come so far since the 1980s, when public opinion was influenced by figures like Enoch Powell. His Unborn Children (Protection) bill posed a very real threat to any further innovation, any research, or the development of treatment options for the infertile or families suffering from the blight of inherited disease. The change has come through raised awareness, information and education, familiarity, and demystification of the field of reproductive technology. We owe it to those who campaigned in the 1980s and 1990s, and to future generations, to ensure that the level of discussion during this forthcoming HFEA consultation is intelligent, informed and pertinent to the real issues.

19 November 2012 - by Sandy Starr 
At the beginning of this year, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority was asked to consult the public on proposed new techniques to avoid the transmission of mitochondrial disease. The resulting public consultation is being conducted in several different ways including two public events, the first of which I attended...
29 October 2012 - by Joseph Jebelli 
Scientists have successfully created human embryos containing donated mitochondrial DNA in an effort to stop children inheriting life-threatening diseases...
8 October 2012 - by Dr Sophie Pryor 
On 25 September 2012 the Progress Educational Trust held a debate on the issues surrounding new techniques to prevent the transmission of mitochondrial disease. The event was organised in partnership with City University London's science journalism course and was supported by the Wellcome Trust....
17 September 2012 - by Dr Sophie Pryor 
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....
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...
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....
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...
13 February 2012 - by Dr Kristina Elvidge 
Mitochondrial diseases are soon to be brought to the attention of the general public, as the Government seeks to gauge the attitude of the nation towards a ground-breaking IVF treatment that could prevent these conditions being passed from mother to child...
23 January 2012 - by Dr Maria Botcharova 
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...
12 September 2005 - by Dr Virginia Bolton 
This week saw another very positive illustration of the rigour and effectiveness of the regulatory system that exists in the UK to licence research using human embryos. However, it also highlighted ambiguities in the wording of the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which is currently the focus of a...
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