On February 3, 2015, the UK House of Commons voted to authorize a fertility technique known as mitochondrial donation. The babies that result from such a technique would have three genetic parents: one father and two mothers. The process shows promise in preventing the passing on of serious mitochondrial diseases from mother to infant. Perhaps belying the controversy surrounding a novel reproductive technology, the vote in the House of Commons was fairly one-sided; there were 382 members in approval and 128 against. Approval by the House of Lords is necessary, but if it is forthcoming, babies conceived by this process could be born in 2016.
The process involves the manipulation of embryos from two women. The nuclear DNA of a woman who will pass on a mitochondrial disease is transplanted into the de-nucleated embryo of a donor. The resulting embryo has sets of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA from two different women, and the process of in vitro fertilization is then used to carry out the pregnancy. The infant born of this process would have the genetic material of three people, but would also hopefully be free of the diseases resulting from the defective mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial diseases are untreatable, and those afflicted by them often do not live into adulthood. This new fertility process is the result of lengthy scientific research, and heralded as a medical breakthrough. Proponents of the process say that it provides women who would otherwise pass on these debilitating diseases with the opportunity to have healthy genetic offspring.
The process is controversial, however; many groups and commentators have voiced moral and ethical opposition to this technique. Some religious groups such as the Catholic Church argue for prohibition on moral grounds, as the technique involves the destruction of embryos. The Church of England believes approval of the technique is premature, and that further study is warranted before the process is used for humans. Other commentators suggest that adoption is a better choice for those mothers with mitochondrial diseases because the technique does not prevent harm or save a life, but rather creates a new one. Others are simply uncomfortable with the ethical considerations of scientists “playing God” or the slippery slope to eugenics.
The technique has been illegal in the United States since 2002. However, the FDA has recently reconsidered the issue, including holding a series of meetings in February, 2014. The agency’s briefing document outlines both the technology and the safety concerns with the technology, including insufficiently reliable data, potential damage to the genetic material, and the potential adverse interactions between the nuclear and mitochondrial DNA. That said, there are many proponents of the technology. Perhaps the authorization by the House of Commons is a sign of changes to come around the world.