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Mitochondria in the spotlight

17 September 2012
Appeared in BioNews 673

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. They haven't been able to evade the wily BioNews editors though; mitochondria have featured in more than 160 BioNews headlines. BioNews first wrote about the possibility of preventing inherited mitochondrial disease back in 1999 (reported in BioNews 024).

Mitochondria must have got a new press agent as they started the year with a splash. There was a £5.8m boost for mitochondrial disease research from the Wellcome Trust (reported in BioNews 641), the Government tasked the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and Sciencewise with carrying out a public consultation on using emerging techniques designed to prevent mitochondrial disease and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics issued a call for evidence on mitochondrial donation.

This year their press cuttings service must have had to buy an extra pair of scissors – mitochondria even got a mention at the Leveson Inquiry! Last week they made the news again with the official opening of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research, at Newcastle University by Professor Sir Mark Walport (1,2).

Today the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) launched their public consultation (3). The Progress Educational Trust (PET), the UK charity which publishes BioNews, has a longstanding interest in this area. During the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act's passage through Parliament, PET briefed parliamentarians on the advances scientists at the University of Newcastle were making and the potential benefits for the families affected by mitochondrial conditions.

Following the publication of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics Report in June (reported in BioNews 661), which gave the ethical green light to the research, PET decided to find out what people like you thought. So we put a poll on the BioNews website asking:

Should Government allow variations of IVF using genetic material from three people to prevent people from inheriting mitochondrial diseases?

An amazing 793 of you responded. Thank you!

People came to the survey via diverse means - our email newsletter, our website, and the promotional activities of other organisations and people in our orbit. Our 2012 reader survey showed that BioNews is read by people from 40 different countries, from a wide range of professions and with many different areas of interest and many different reasons for reading BioNews. We also know that people read BioNews who are fundamentally opposed to what many would consider to be routine IVF, let alone the techniques involved here.

The poll results don't have the status of scientific findings, by any stretch of the imagination. But the fact that two-thirds of respondents supported and one-third opposed the use of these techniques suggests that public and professional opinion on this issue shouldn't be taken for granted. So if you have views on these techniques and their use then it's important that you respond to the HFEA's consultation (3). Remember that 251 people voted against this research in the BioNews poll and write your response now.

Newspaper editors should be prepared to hold the front page as mitochondria are sure to be hitting the headlines again soon.

1) £5.8m centre aims to help sufferers
Northern Echo |  12 September 2012
2) New centre will lead mitochondrial research
Newcastle University (press release) |  11 September 2012
3) HFEA launches public consultation, Medical Frontiers: Debating mitochondria replacement
Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority |  17 September 2012
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...
22 October 2012 - by Dr Rebecca Dimond 
Techniques for the prevention of mitochondrial disease have attracted intense speculation, controversy and excitement...
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....
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...
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...
3 May 2011 - by MacKenna Roberts 
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...
3 May 2011 - by Professor Alison Murdoch 
Medicine has faced many controversial milestones, none more so than those involving reproduction. The UK Government must now decide whether we can use IVF technology to reduce the risk of transmission of mitochondrial DNA abnormalities. Will they accept it or reject it?...
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