A clinic in Newcastle upon Tyne has been granted the UK’s first licence to carry out a trial of “three person IVF” (Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy, or MRT). The fertility technique is intended to be used by couples who want to prevent genetic diseases being passed on to their children, due to faulty mitochondrial DNA. The process uses genetic material from the mother, father and a female donor, and replaces faulty genetic material in the mother’s DNA with the female donor’s genetic material.
There have already been a small number of three parent IVF pregnancies elsewhere in the world, resulting in reportedly healthy babies.
However the technique is not without its controversies and critics.
There is concern in some quarters that, given the relatively novel nature of the technique, it may have dangerous implications for babies born from its use. Genes interact with each other, and our understanding of how they do so is far from complete. Could replacing one set of inherited genetic material with a completely different set cause unexpected and unwanted interactions? Genes also interact with the environment, sometimes being switched on and off, and how this process would be affected by the presence of non-inherited mitochondrial DNA is not known.
There are also religious objections. Both the Church of England and the Catholic Church had expressed concerns about the technique to the UK government before it was legalised. Concerns have included the fact that human embryos are destroyed in the process. There are also fears that, although those in favour of the technique stress that the amount of genetic material replaced is tiny, it may play a more crucial role in identity than has been anticipated. Questions also arise about how to classify the relationship between the female donor and the child, carrying a small amount of her DNA.
Those in favour of the technique being used stress the enormous pain mitochondrial disorders cause families with the genetic traits. Allowing such families to avoid the risk of passing on genetic problems to their children would alleviate great suffering. Further, the amount of genetic material which is replaced is tiny (about 0.1%), so fears about the effect this may have on the identity of the individual and functioning of the genome as a whole may be overblown.
This is certainly not the first fertility technique to create great controversy.
Read more about fertility techniques and their legal implications here: