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19th February 2020
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Pro-nuclear – or against?

Posted 04/02/2015 by cgodfrey

The House of Commons this week voted by 382 to 128 – a majority of 254 – to allow mitochondrial donation through a controversial amendment to the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. The regulations, which are likely also to be approved in the House of Lords, put the UK firmly on course to become the first country in the world to allow the creation of so-called ‘three-parent babies’.

The first baby with DNA from three people could be born as early as 2016. Along with the DNA from its parents, it will possess genetic material - 37 genes out of the 22000 or so that typically make up the full human genome complement - from a third ‘donor’ woman.

I ought to have been delighted by the outcome. From now on, no child’s life need ever again be blighted by devastating mitochondrial disease; no families should suffer again the pain of seeing their offspring afflicted by this terrible life-curtailing condition. The donor DNA accounts for the most tiny fraction of the overall genome,  none of it in any way involved in defining characteristics: eye colour, hair colour or the personalities that make us each unique as individuals.

So why aren’t I more enthusiastic? The human genome has evolved through centuries of trial and error; much of the detail of how and why it works remains unclear. Changing a person’s DNA is something that can’t easily be undone; our individual DNA is fundamental to our genetic heritage, passed down between successive generations. Changes in one part, however slight, could have consequences that are as yet unclear.

On paper, the science of ‘pronuclear transfer’ is clear-cut. Pioneered by scientists at the UK’s University of Newcastle, both the mother’s egg and the donor’s egg are fertilised to create a pair of embryos as part of IVF. ‘Pronuclear DNA’ from the parents – the genetic blueprint for life – is inserted into the donor embryo, which has been stripped of its own nuclear material and is packed with healthy mitochondria, the energy generating powerhouses within cells that are the key to well-being and survival.

Designer babies? Three-parent offspring? Emotive language doesn’t help the debate. But there is no disguising the fact that mitochondrial donation will forever change the way that we can regard our genetic inheritance.  

Cath O’Driscoll – Deputy editor

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