British lawmakers voted to allow three-parent babies for the first time

February 4, 2015 6:45 pm

British lawmakers in the House of Commons voted to allow scientists
to create babies from the DNA of three people – a move that could
prevent some children from inheriting potentially fatal diseases from
their mothers.
The vote in the House of Commons was 382-128 in
favour. The bill must next be approved by the House of Lords before
becoming law.
If so, it would make Britain the first country in the world to allow embryos to be genetically modified.

British lawmakers in the House of Commons voted Tuesday to allow
scientists to create babies from the DNA of three people. Photo /
Thinkstock

The
controversial techniques – which aim to prevent mothers from passing on
inherited diseases – involve altering a human egg or embryo before
transferring it into the mother.
British law currently forbids
any such modification and critics say approving the techniques could
lead to the creation of “designer babies.”

Defects in the mitochondria can result in diseases including
muscular dystrophy, heart, kidney and liver failure and severe muscle
weakness.
The technology is completely different from that used
to create genetically modified foods, where scientists typically select
individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another.
In the House of Commons, minister Jane Ellison kicked off the debate by urging support for the change.
“This
is a bold step to take, but it is a considered and informed step,” she
said, of the proposed technology to help women with mitochondrial
diseases.
Critics, however, say the techniques cross a
fundamental scientific boundary, since the changes made to the embryos
will be passed on to future generations.
“(This is) about
protecting children from the severe health risks of these unnecessary
techniques and protecting everyone from the eugenic designer-baby future
that will follow from this,” said David King, director of the secular
watchdog group Human Genetics Alert.
The techniques would likely
only be used in about a dozen British women every year who have faulty
mitochondria, the energy-producing structures outside a cell’s nucleus.
To
fix that, scientists remove the nucleus DNA from the egg of a
prospective mother and insert it into a donor egg from which the nucleus
DNA has been removed. This can be done either before or after
fertilization.
The resulting embryo would end up with the nucleus
DNA from its parents but the mitochondrial DNA from the donor.
Scientists say the DNA from the donor egg amounts to less than 1 per
cent of the resulting embryo’s genes.
Last year, the US Food and
Drug Administration held a meeting to discuss the techniques and
scientists warned it could take decades to determine if they are safe.
Experts say the techniques are likely being used elsewhere, such as in
China and Japan, but are mostly unregulated.
Rachel Kean, whose
aunt suffered from mitochondrial disease and had several miscarriages
and stillbirths, said she hoped British politicians would approve the
techniques. Kean, an activist for the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, said
her mother is also a carrier of mitochondrial disease and that she
herself would like the option one day of having children who won’t be
affected.
“Knowing that you could bring a child into this world
for a short, painful life of suffering is not something I would want to
do,” she said.
A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said
he was a “strong supporter” of the change. Cameron had a severely
disabled son, Ivan, who died at age 6 in 2009, from a rare form of
epilepsy.
Lisa Jardine, who chaired a review into the techniques
conducted by Britain’s fertility regulator, said each case will be under
close scrutiny and that doctors will track children born using this
technique as well as their future offspring.
She acknowledged there was still uncertainty about the safety of the novel techniques.
“Every
medical procedure ultimately carries a small risk,” she said, pointing
out that the first baby created using in-vitro fertilization would never
have been born if scientists hadn’t risked experimenting with unproven
methods.
Yet Kean said she understood the opposition to the new technology.
“It’s
everybody’s prerogative to object, due to their own personal beliefs,”
she said. “But to me the most ethical option is stopping these
devastating diseases from causing suffering in the future.

Why are scientists proposing this?

The
new fertility techniques aim to help women who are carriers of
mitochondrial disease from passing it on to their children. Mitochondria
are the energy-producing structures outside of a cell’s nucleus, and
defects in them can result in degenerative diseases including muscular
dystrophy, problems with the heart and kidneys, severe muscle weakness,
epilepsy and mental retardation.
Scientists would remove the
nucleus DNA from the egg of a prospective mother and insert it into a
donor egg from which the nucleus DNA has been removed. That can be done
either before or after fertilization. The resulting embryo has nucleus
DNA from its parents but mitochondrial DNA from the donor. Scientists
say the DNA from the donor egg is less than 1 per cent of the resulting
embryo’s genes.

Who is opposed to this?

The
Catholic Church has long opposed any artificial reproductive techniques
that include fertilization or the destruction of embryos. Last week,
the Church of England voiced concern that there had not been enough
scientific study or consultation of the techniques.
Other critics
say that because the genetic change made to the embryo or egg will be a
permanent one that is passed on, it’s impossible to know what impact
they will have on future generations and if there are any safety
problems.

Is this like making genetically modified foods?

No.
To make genetically modified foods, scientists select individual genes
to be transferred from one organism into another. Most of the
genetically modified foods on the market are aimed at making crops less
vulnerable to pesticides or plant diseases.
In the techniques used to help women with mitochondrial disease, no genes are inserted into the egg or the embryo.

How widely would the mitochondrial techniques be used?

Experts
estimate only about a dozen British women would be considered for this
every year and that some women may choose other ways to have children,
such as egg donation or adoption.
Clinics that offer the
techniques will have to apply for a special license and any children
born afterward will be closely monitored for potential health problems.
Experts estimate the first baby born from these techniques could come
within the next three years.

Is this allowed anywhere else?

Not legally. There are no mitochondria replacement treatments approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.
Last
year, the US agency met to discuss the techniques proposed in the U.K.
Scientists in the US said it’s too soon to use them in humans, although
monkeys have been produced using one of the techniques.

Tags:
shared on wplocker.com