Three Person Gene Treatment

The UK House of Commons has now voted (382 for, 128 against) in favour of so-called “three-person IVF”.

The UK will now lead the way in using and further developing this technique.

The technique is being used solely to combat mitochondrial disease – mitochondrial disease is in fact a number of different genetic diseases (mutations of the genes) that are passed by a mother to her children.

The mitochondrial genes are commonly described as the batteries powering every human cell.

The technique involves taking the nucleus from the mother and implanting it into the egg of the third-party donor in which the nucleus was removed. The third-party donor egg has the properly working mitochondria. The egg can then be fertilized and implanted into the original mother, (or implanted and then fertilized).

Once this is done the children born to the mother will be born without the mitochondrial gene defect – importantly this altered/corrected gene will from then on be passed down the line of the family.

This is where the controversy occurs – this is the first time that medical treatment for one person will go on to benefit their children, and all female children further down the same family line.

Just to be clear this treatment and the approval for it relates solely to the treatment of mitochondrial disease – it is not as wrongly described by some as “three-person IVF” – this is not a fertility treatment – it is a gene treatment.

It is not designed to lead to the usual cries of “designer babies”, though that said the technique could in the future be expanded to cover other issues, and an element of selection – however that is clearly not the intention here.

Approximately 1 in 4,000 children in the US will develop mitochondrial disease before the age of 10. In the US an average of 800 births per year will carry a risk of transmitting the disease, 150 per year in the UK.

This scientific development and the political will to make it a reality is a very significant step in treating genetic diseases. Worryingly it may also be the last hurrah for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which could be absorbed into the NHS by a future UK government.

See the links below:

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA)
The Guardian – Tom Solomon
The Guardian – Polly Toynbee