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Mitochondrial donation: Church of England, Nobel prize winners weigh in on opposite sides

2 February 2015
Appeared in BioNews 788

A group of researchers, including five Nobel laureates, has urged the UK's Parliament to legislate for mitochondrial donation that could potentially prevent the transmission of serious mitochondrial disease from women to their children.

Writing to The Times ahead of this week's Parliamentary vote on the matter, the scientists argue that parents should no longer 'have to wait for the law to catch up' with the available technology. The letter states that it is for those 'who know what it is like to care for, and sometimes to lose an extremely sick child' to ultimately decide on whether their use of the technology is right for them.

Mitochondrial donation has faced opposition from the Anglican Church, among others, which has said that legalisation of the techniques would be 'irresponsible'. Reverend Dr Brendan McCarthy, the Church of England's national adviser on medical ethics, said: 'The Archbishops' Council, which monitors this issue, does not feel that there has been sufficient scientific study or informed consultation into the ethics, safety and efficacy of mitochondrial transfer'.

'Without a clearer picture of the role mitochondria play in the transfer of hereditary characteristics, the Church does not feel it would be responsible to change the law at this time,' Reverend McCarthy said.

Discussions to permit mitochondrial donation have been underway since 2010, when researchers working in the field requested that the Government use existing powers under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 to introduce Regulations that would allow the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to grant licences to use mitochondrial donation in treatment, if it chose to do so.

At the Government's request, the HFEA undertook three scientific reviews into the techniques in 2011, 2013 and 2014, which concluded that there is no evidence to suggest that the techniques are unsafe.

Further, the Department of Health canvassed opinions from over 1,800 research bodies, patient bodies, professional organisations, faith organisations, parliamentarians and individuals before it decided put draft Regulations before Parliament.

'After years of careful research, we are finally at a point where a cure for mitochondrial disorders may be within reach', said Professor Dagan Wells, associate professor at the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre, University of Oxford.

While recognising that 'there will always be a small number who are opposed due to religious or other convictions', Sarah Norcross, director of the Progress Educational Trust, which publishes BioNews, said: 'We are confident that once MPs understand the relevant techniques, and what they mean to families affected by devastating mitochondrial diseases, the majority will vote in favour.'

Researchers from Newcastle University have recently estimated that up to 2,473 women in the UK could benefit from the new techniques.

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