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'Three parent' gene treatment 'gives great hope'

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Fears over a controversial genetic technique aimed at preventing the birth of children with incurable diseases will fade away just as concerns over IVF have been overcome, public health minister Jane Ellison has insisted.

Ms Ellison said pioneering mitochondrial replacement treatment will allow families to prevent their children being born with severe genetic diseases that cause “dreadful” suffering.

Critics have said the technique, which involves removal and replacement of mitochondria - often described as the cell’s factories - could lead to “designer babies” or amount to genetic engineering or eugenics.

But Ms Ellison said the treatment is an important scientific advance and regulations due to be brought forward by the government would ensure there is no “slippery slope” that could lead to the technique being used for other purposes.

The treatment involves replacing faulty mitochondria within an embryo. Mitochondria create the energy needed to keep the body functioning, but they also contain a small amount of DNA.

This means that in cases where the technique is used, a baby has the DNA of three people - two parents and the donor.

If legalised, the UK would become the only country in the world to allow children with three people’s DNA to be born.

Ms Ellison said the government’s regulations will ensure it can only be used for that purpose, pointing out that the original rules governing IVF are still in place 25 year later.

She said: “Successive governments have responded to advances in science which have been controversial in their day.

“Many MPs will cast their mind back to the debates about IVF. There are MPs here today in the chamber who I suspect would have probably been extremely wary of IVF techniques who have written to me in the last year asking me to help infertile couples in their constituency.”

She went on: “If you take just for example the proposal that limited research on embryos to a maximum of 14 days development, we were told then in those debates on IVF that that was a slippery slope, that the 14 day rule would be come 20 days, 50 days, even six months.

“Today, 25 years on, that Rubicon remains uncrossed.”

Ms Ellison also responded to claims that children born using the treatment would have “three parents”.

She said: “Surely we cannot reduce the notion of parenthood to genes.

“Many of the people who have spoken in this debate and particularly some of the people, the mover of the motion, has spoken often in other contexts about how parenthood is about so much more, about loving and nurturing and all of those things.”

Ms Ellison said the legalisation of the treatment was supported by the chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies, reproductive health expert Professor Lord Winston, as well as other clinicians and IVF experts.

She said: “We believe that this is an important scientific advance that holds out great hope for families in this country and indeed around the world.”

Ms Ellison was responding to a backbench motion calling on the government to delay bringing forward regulations on the technique.

The motion was passed unopposed but has no binding effect on the government.

Tory Fiona Bruce (Congleton), who earlier introduced the motion, said to allow mitochondrial replacement procedures to go ahead at the present time given the public safety concerns would be “tantamount to experimentation”.

She said: “This is a case of genetic engineering. It is the alteration of a potential human being by the removal of certain genes and the replacement of others to create children. Surely in such a case we should be very, very careful?”

Meanwhile, Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) said describing the technique as the “curing of disease” was misleading, saying it would instead be “stopping somebody being born who would otherwise have been born.”

Conservative Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) said he was generally very conservative on issues he would consider to be “playing God”.

He said: “Anything would modify human characteristics and be seen as some form of designer babies I have always and would always oppose.”

But former science minister David Willetts said he supported the technique and dismissed fears that it would amount to genetic engineering or eugenics.

He said: “Eugenics was about forced sterilisation, eugenics was about saying to people who were thought to carry some disease ‘we are not going to allow you to have children’.

“This is the opposite - this is saying to people ‘we want you to be able to have children and we want you to be able to have them free from the anxiety they would be bearing some disease’.”

Health Select Committee chair Sarah Wollaston said the government should not delay bringing forward legislation and criticised the language used by those opposed to the treatment.

Dr Wollaston said: “I rise to urge you not to delay bringing forward the regulations and I urge the House not to lose sight of the child, not to lose sight of the children and their families who are devastated by mitochondrial diseases.

“Of course it’s absolutely right that this House debates the ethics but I think at times the language used has clouded those arguments.”

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The Tim Loughton MP quote is misleading. He is in fact very supportive of techniques to avoid the transmission of mitochondrial disease. In the Commons debate he went on to say:
    "However, there are times when one has to be pragmatic. I have met families of the victims of these terrible, deforming, disfiguring and life-shortening diseases. It is right that we should use our human knowledge for the good of fellow mankind. It is great that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts) has said, British science is leading the way.

    Science is about finding cures and solutions, and this is just a different way of preventing horrible things from happening to our children. It is fundamentally a human intervention and it should be judged purely on the basis of whether we are doing more good than bad. I believe that we are when one in 6,500 of our constituents each year contract, without any choice, these horrible inherited diseases. The longer we say, “We need more checks, more safety, more testing”, the longer we are delaying a cure.

    We need to get on with it. It has been widely consulted on. I have received virtually no letters on this matter and we need to take a balanced judgment on when the risks of mitochondrial donation become proportionate to the severity of the diseases that are affecting our constituents now. As colleagues have said, it will be licensed by the HFEA based on the safety and efficacy of the evidence, and those licences can be withdrawn at any time.

    “Mitochondrial donation only allows for unaltered nuclear DNA to be transferred to an egg or embryo that has unaltered healthy mitochondria. These techniques only replace, rather than alter, a small number of unhealthy genes in the ‘battery pack’ of the cells with healthy ones. Mitochondrial donation does not alter personal characteristics and traits of the person.”

    That is an important consideration, because:

    “Mitochondrial donation will enable mothers to choose to have children who are genetically related to them, with a natural combination of nuclear genes from both parents while being free from a potentially devastating disease.

    Nuclear DNA is not altered and so mitochondrial donation will not affect the child’s appearance, personality or any other features that make a person unique—it will simply allow the mitochondria to function normally and the child to be free of mitochondrial DNA disease. The healthy mitochondria will also be passed on to any children of women born using the technique”—

    so we are doing good for generations to come as well.

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