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Government is misleading public about mitochondrial donation, claim scientists

4 August 2014
Appeared in BioNews 765

The UK Government has been accused of misleading the public in order to win approval for its plans to permit mitochondrial donation.

In an article in the Independent, fertility doctor Professor Lord Robert Winston and evolutionary biologist Dr Ted Morrow say the Government has redefined genetic modification to exclude mitochondrial donation.

Lord Winston said: 'The Government seems to have come to the right decision but used bizarre justification. Of course mitochondrial transfer is genetic modification and this modification is handed down the generations'.

Dr Morrow, from the University of Sussex, said: 'My impression is the Government is doing all it can to contain and define these kinds of terms in ways that favour mitochondrial replacement being introduced as an uncontroversial therapy'.

Mitochondrial replacement involves creating eggs or embryos using the mitochondrial DNA of a healthy egg donor. Because mitochondrial DNA is not thought to affect a person's appearance or personality, the Department of Health describes mitochondrial donation as falling between organ donation and gamete donation.

Lord Winston said: 'It is totally wrong to compare it with a blood transfusion or a transplant and an honest statement might be more sensible and encourage public trust'.

'They push the idea that mitochondrial DNA does nothing more than regenerate more mitochondria, which are nothing more than cellular batteries, and that mitochondrial genes don’t encode traits relevant to personal identity and so on', said Dr Morrow.

Mitochondrial donation techniques - due to be debated in Parliament later this year - have come under fire before, with some European MPs saying they amount to eugenics (see BioNews 726) and a UK MP comparing them to cloning (see BioNews 746).

Writing in the Guardian, Dr Morrow has previously said that 'a number of important safety concerns remain unresolved', detailing the theory that mitochondrial DNA and nuclear DNA have evolved to be compatible. He believes that mitochondrial replacement will lead to a mismatch of DNA types that will give rise to 'a range of damaging effects'.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies responded to the claims, saying: 'Let us be clear, we are not opening the doors to so-called "designer babies". Mitochondrial donation does not involve manipulating the nuclear DNA which determines personal characteristics and human traits. This is and will remain illegal'.

'It is true that in the absence of a universally agreed definition of genetic modification, we have agreed a working definition with expert scientists. However, we have been entirely open and transparent by sharing this with Parliament'.

Citing the early concerns over the safety and ethics of IVF before it became widely accepted, she said: 'We must now have the courage to push forward and give future mothers the chance to have children born free from devastating mitochondrial diseases'.

Sarah Norcross, Director of the Progress Educational Trust (the charity that publishes BioNews), said that 'these techniques move DNA molecules from one place to another while leaving them completely intact' and so 'fears associated with the concept of "genetic modification" are not relevant to mitochondrial donation'.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
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