The notion of ‘three-parent’ IVF has recently been cropping up in the news. What is it all about, and why is the government seeking public opinion on the issue?
The term ‘three-parent’ IVF has been used to discuss a new genetic technique aiming to prevent serious diseases passing from mother to child. It specifically targets diseases caused by a mutation in the small, energy-generating part of each cell called mitochondria.
Mitochondrial diseases, which affect an estimated one in 250 births in the UK, can vary in the way that they are expressed. As mitochondria provide energy for cells, any genetic mutations they have can affect the functioning of cells, particularly those that require a lot of energy. Some symptoms include heart and liver failure; others include mental disorders and deterioration of muscle tissue. There isn’t currently a cure, and most forms of the disease become worse with age.
The new technique being developed aims to allow mothers with mutated mitochondria to have children who will not be affected. The technique involves moving the genetic material in the nucleus of an egg cell with faulty mitochondria, into one that is healthy, from another female. The egg can then be fertilised before or after this transferral by IVF.
Because the mitochondria do have a tiny amount of genetic material, the embryo resulting from the technique will technically contain DNA from three individuals – the mother, the father, and the female with healthy mitochondria – hence, ‘three parents’.
The technique is currently illegal under UK law, but the government is considering amending this policy. It is asking us, the general public, to comment: in September, a website will be launched, containing background information and a survey inviting everyone to provide their views. In October and November, there will be a series of public discussions, after which the government will decide whether to alter the law.
So why is the technique so controversial? Essentially, the issues surrounding this method touch upon some very deep-rooted concerns about the future of genetic research.
First and foremost, do we know that the technique will actually work? Peter Saunders of the Christian Medical Fellowship has told The Guardian that he thinks it won’t. He suggests similar techniques have been around for over 40 years with very little evidence of success. This question, however, cannot be answered until research is carried out.
Is the technique safe in the long-run for the children who are conceived by it? Saunders again suggests that it won’t be. In mammals, cloning and similar techniques have been linked to physical abnormalities and limited lifespans. Moreover, any alterations that are made to the genetic code would then potentially persist into future generations. How can we be sure of the outcomes?
Guido de Wert, professor of biomedical ethics at Maastricht University, suggests that this might be a price worth paying. He argued that although scientists do not fully understand how the mitochondria affect human characteristics, a life-threatening disease can have an impact that is at least as great.
Aside from the science, we can question whether the technique is ‘ethical’, and whether children conceived by this technique can really be said to have three parents. The Nuffield Council for Bioethics (NCB) has pointed out that although a small number of their genes will come from a third person, it would be almost impossible to identify her through a genetic test, because many of us share the same mitochondrial DNA anyway. Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, dismissed such concerns in The Times: “If a child with donated mitochondria can be said to have three parents, then the recipient of a heart transplant could be said to have four.”
In June, the NCB released a report stating that they think that the technique is ethically sound. They admit that the technique crosses a line, but uphold that it does so “in a very precise, limited way, which we feel we can live with.”
It has been argued that allowing a child to unnecessarily inherit a disease is more unethical still. De Wert suggests that rather than restricting the characteristics that they inherit, the technique would in fact give them more freedom.
When it comes to interpreting a public consultation, it can be difficult to know whose views are the most objective. For all their experience, scientists may be looking for funding and publicity for their research. Biotechnology companies may be looking for profits, while politicians would love to be responsible for pushing forward a technique that will go on to save lives, yet cautious of being blamed for an experiment gone wrong.
We may or may not agree with the priorities driving all of these individuals, and we most likely each have a slightly different view. This is precisely why it’s important for as many people as possible to contribute an opinion, and why we are being given the opportunity to do just that.