On Feb 3rd, the British House of Commons voted to legalize a scientific procedure called Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy (MRT) which could prevent serious inherited diseases being passed on from a mother to her baby. It also means starting next year, children with DNA from three adults or ‘three-parent babies‘ could be a reality.
MP’s voted 382 to 128 for the procedure which was passed amidst stiff opposition from groups such as Church of England, Catholic Church, Human Genetics Alert, Christian Medical Fellowship, Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and Islamic Medical Association UK. They alleged, that altering a person’s genetic make-up has huge ethical consequences and raises concerns about a slippery slope to designer babies. With this, Britain has become the first country in the world to endorse this genetic innovation which was largely developed at Newcastle University.
Mitochondria are small structures present in the cell which break down the nutrients we eat and converts it to energy. These structures contain a tiny fraction of our DNA which is subject to mutations. It is passed on by the mother to her kids and could be potentially fatal for the child. Several thousands of people are affected worldwide due to these mitochondrial mutations, which causes problems such as blindness, deafness, epilepsy, diabetes, muscular dystrophy and neurological diseases in kids.
Many women give birth to children who are born very sick due to these mitochondrial mutations and fear giving birth to another child, knowing that the same disease can reoccur. However, the good news is that once the faulty mitochondria are replaced by a healthy one, children never pass on the disease. Thus, this procedure could be the ‘light at the end of a very dark tunnel’ for those families who want their children to get a chance to live a full life.
In this method, scientists replaced faulty mitochondria in the mother’s fertilized egg with healthy mitochondria from a donor egg, which is then re-implanted into the mother. There is a huge debate in scientific circles as to whether the term ‘three-parent baby’ is right. The children would have more than 99.99% of their DNA (which determine the child’s characteristics) from their parents, while a miniscule fraction- less than 0.01% is acquired from the woman who donated the healthy mitochondria. Some scientists instead, consider the procedure akin to organ transplantation.
British PM who was amongst the supporters for this novel technique said, this will give couples who have endured repeatedly miscarrying or burying their children, the option of a healthy family. PM David Cameron said: ‘As someone who has had the experience of having a severely disabled child [Ivan, who died six years ago] I have every sympathy with those parents.
‘The people arguing that we are fiddling with nature in a profound way, I think are quite wrong. We are not playing God, we are just making sure that all parents who want a healthy baby can have one’, he said. Scientists, patients and physicians all over the world have applauded this decision.
Following the overwhelming approval of this ‘three-parent’ baby technique in UK, Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov who is a leading expert on embryo manipulation and a pioneer in this field has requested US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to conduct trials of mitochondrial transfer as a treatment for age-related infertility. Infertility is a big problem for modern society, because of women delaying their first baby. Professor Mitalipov, who has a distinguished record in reproductive science, said there is strong evidence that women become less fertile after 35, because of the ageing of the egg cytoplasm, the non-nuclear part of the egg that is replaced during mitochondrial transfer. Hence, all basic research pointed to poor egg quality.
Scientists are proposing that replacing the cytoplasm of a older woman with the cytoplasm of a younger woman, similar to mitochondrial replacement therapy could circumvent the problem of egg quality. Professor Mitalipov has applied for two clinical trial licenses from FDA – one for treating mitochondrial disease and the other for treating age-related infertility.