WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
- By authorising the creation of so called designer babies UK regulators are permitting doctors to use new gene therapy treatments to save, and change, lives, but without proper oversight we could quickly enter the wild west
Last year the UK changed its laws in order to permit scientists to modify eggs or embryos before they are transferred into women, and now the UK’s fertility regulator, after five years of tests, has green lighted the procedures, the first one being Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy (MRT), that scientists will use to create babies that have three parents.
The historic and controversial move, which is a world first, was passed in order to prevent children being born with deadly genetic diseases but it’s stressed that it will not open the floodgates for designer babies.
Doctors in Newcastle who helped develop MRT are expected to be the first to offer the procedure and have already appealed for donor eggs and it’s thought that the first UK designer baby will be born in 2017.
MRT, which was first used in Mexico earlier this year to create the worlds first designer baby, will initially be used to help families who’ve lost children to inherited mitochondrial diseases, which are passed down from only the mother to have healthy offspring.
“It is a decision of historic importance,” said Sally Cheshire, chairwoman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), “this is about cautious go ahead, not gung-ho go ahead, and there is a long way to go. I’m sure patients will be really pleased by what we’ve decided today.”
But some scientists have questioned the ethics of the technique, saying it could open the door to genetically modified ‘designer’ babies, so as a safeguard the HFEA must approve every clinic and every patient before the procedure can take place.
Three person babies will only be allowed where the risk of a child developing mitochondrial disease is very high and clinics will be able to apply to the HFEA for a licence to carry out the procedure with the teams at Newcastle-upon-Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Newcastle University expected to be the first to be granted a licence.
“It is enormously gratifying that our many years of research in this area can finally be applied in the real world to help families affected by these devastating diseases. Now that that we are moving forward towards clinical treatments, we will also need donors to donate eggs for use in treatment to prevent affected women transmitting disease to their children,” said Prof Mary Herbert, from the Newcastle Fertility Centre.
“We are delighted by today’s decision. We will also provide long-term follow up of any children born,” said Prof Sir Doug Turnbull, the director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research.
NHS England has agreed to fund the treatment costs of the first trial of three person IVF for those women who meet the HFEA criteria, only as long as they agree to long term follow up checks of their children after they are born.
“This historic decision will open the door to the first licensed treatments being offered. We know of many women who have faced heartache and tragedy and the sorrow of stillbirths, while trying to start their own family, and this decision gives them new hope and choice for the first time,” said Robert Meadowcroft from the charity Muscular Dystrophy UK.
“The decision is wonderful news,” said Prof Frances Flinter, professor in clinical genetics at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, “it is infinitely preferable that the early clinical trials should be done in a tightly regulated system in the UK, with long term follow up of any children born, rather than in countries where there is no regulation or oversight [such as Mexico].”
Meanwhile Prof. Sir Robert Lechler, president of the Academy of Medical Science, said that the decision means “groundbreaking research can now be translated from theory into practice and transform lives in the clinic”.
However, the decision is not universally welcome.
“This decision opens the door to the world of genetically modified designer babies. Already, bioethicists have started to argue that allowing mitochondrial replacement means that there is no logical basis for resisting GM babies, which is exactly how slippery slopes work,” said Dr David King, from the campaign group Human Genetics Alert.