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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'.

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'What is Ethics?' A seemingly innocent question asked by a 14-year-old student in my first year as a teacher. I struggled for a reply. Since then, I have been on the lookout for any resource that clarifies this question...
16 March 2015 - by Simon Hazelwood-Smith 
This interview started badly for Professor Robert Winston. Within the first four minutes he had branded the concerns of opponents to mitochondrial donation 'trivial', and almost immediately after denied that he had done so...
12 January 2015 - by Dr Rachel Montgomery 
Regulations to legalise and govern the use of mitochondrial donation techniques have been placed before the UK Parliament....
24 November 2014 - by Dr Paul Knoepfler 
Experimental mitochondrial replacement technology has a noble goal, but in my opinion there are too many unanswered questions and risks that remain to allow it to proceed at this time. I believe that moving forward with it would most likely be a tragic mistake for the UK...
22 September 2014 - by Dr Cathy Herbrand 
Following a backbench debate in the House of Commons on mitochondrial donation on 1 September, BBC Radio 4 explored some of the issues raised by these high profile techniques aimed at preventing the transmission of mitochondrial disorders...
28 July 2014 - by Dr Rachel Montgomery 
The UK Government has announced that regulations around the use of mitochondrial replacement techniques will be presented to Parliament in the next few months...
9 June 2014 - by Alice Plein 
Two experimental IVF techniques that could prevent certain types of incurable genetic disease are 'not unsafe', a report from the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has found....
17 March 2014 - by Dr Louisa Petchey 
The Conservative MP for North East Somerset, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has said that mitochondrial donation will produce 'genetically modified children' with 'three parents', and was 'effectively cloning'...
3 March 2014 - by Patricia Cassidy 
The UK Department of Health has published draft guidelines for the use of new techniques to prevent mothers passing on serious mitochondrial diseases to their children. The guidelines will be the subject of a three-month consultation...
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