Modifying Human Embryos to Thwart Disease Weighed in U.K.

Should parents concerned about passing on genetic diseases to their children be allowed to swap DNA with a donor’s?

A U.K. regulatory agency is posing the question to the public starting today as the government explores whether to allow genetic modification of human embryos to prevent some diseases. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, or HFEA, will report findings to the Department of Health in March, the agency said in a statement today.

The procedure, which isn’t available in the U.S., involves transferring healthy nuclear DNA from one fertilized human egg with unhealthy mitochondrial DNA to a donor embryo with disease-free mitochondria. The approach may prevent genetic disorders such as learning disabilities, heart disease and diabetes. Serious forms of mitochondrial disease affect one in every 6,500 children.

“This is uncharted territory,” Lisa Jardine, chairwoman of the HFEA, told reporters in London last week. “Once we have genetic modification, we have to be damn sure that we are happy. It’s about many generations down the line what the consequences might be.”

In the U.K., the procedure, known as mitochondrial replacement, is legal in the laboratory, though the resulting embryos can’t be implanted in women.

Family Dynamics

The consultation will gauge how the public views the treatment ethically, Jardine said. It raises questions about the legal status of women who donate their eggs, as well as how it will affect family dynamics between the child, parents and donor, she said.

In April 2010, a team of scientists led by Doug Turnbull at Newcastle University in northern England published research on mitochondrial replacement in the journal Nature. They created 80 fertilized eggs using the technique and grew them in a laboratory for six to eight days. That showed for the first time that eggs produced in this way could reach the stage at which they each had divided into about 100 cells.

“The work of Professor Turnbull and colleagues holds great promise for preventing previously incurable disease,” Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, said in a statement last week. “The HFEA consultation provides an important opportunity for us to discuss with the public why we believe this technique is essential and to listen to any concerns they may have.”

Not in U.S.

In the U.S., mitochondrial replacement isn’t a procedure approved by the Food and Drug Administration, said Sean Tipton, a spokesman in Washington, D.C., for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. If the scientific evidence shows that mitochondrial replacement is safe and effective, it should be made available, he said.

The issue may also be conflated with politically controversial research using stem cells taken from human embryos, Tipton said.

“Many people hear ’embryo’ and ’genes’ and very frequently over-react,” he said. “The treatment should be assessed based on science, not science-fiction.”

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