HFEA launches consultation on donor mitochondrial DNA

17 September 2012

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has launched a public consultation on the use of donor treatments to treat inherited mitochondrial disorders.

Mitochondrial disorders are inherited maternally, from a small number of genes on mitochondrial DNA located outside the nucleus in the mother’s egg. Outcomes can range from mild to severe, including muscle weakness, heart disease, and shortened life expectancy.

Mitochondrial replacement aims to prevent inheritance of these disorders by replacing an affected mother’s mitochondrial DNA with that of a donor. These techniques are not currently permitted to be used as treatments for patients in the UK.

Ethical debate on this topic has centred around two main areas of concern:

  • That the resulting child will have genetic contributions from three ‘parents’.
  • That the changes will affect the germline – that is, the donor’s mitochondrial DNA will be passed onto future generations.

Many consider the second of these to be the greater issue, arguing that media representations of ‘three-parent babies’ are sensationalistic and misrepresent the biological situation (see our earlier commentary). The Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ consultation report published this June concluded that mitochondrial donor treatments are ethical, provided they are shown to be effective and safe and that families are given adequate support (see previous news).

HFEA Chair Professor Lisa Jardine said of today’s consultation launch “The Government has asked us to take the public temperature on this important and emotive issue. The decision about whether mitochondria replacement should be made available to treat patients is not only an issue of great importance to families affected by these terrible diseases, but is also one of enormous public interest”.

The consultation is open until 7 December to contributions from professionals and public alike, and documents and background information can be accessed on the HFEA’s consultation website.

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