March 5, 2024

Three-parent children in UK possible after HFEA report

The UK is moving closer to three-parent children after the fertility regulator informed the government that the public would back a controversial embryo treatment.

The UK is moving closer to three-parent children after the fertility regulator informed the government that the public would back a controversial embryo treatment.

After testing the waters of public opinion, the head of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, Professor Lisa Jardine, feels that “there is broad support for permitting mitochondria replacement, to give families at risk of mitochondrial disease the chance of having a healthy child. Although some people have concerns about the safety of these techniques, we found that they trust the scientific experts and the regulator to know when it is appropriate to make them available to patients.”

The HFEA’s findings have been passed to the UK Department of Health, which will make recommendations to Parliament.

About 1 in 6,500 children is affected by a mitochondrial disease. Many of these are lethal; some lead to serious life-long complications. The solution favoured by the HFEA is a complex IVF procedure which involves removing the nucleus of an embryo and transferring it into an enucleated donor egg with healthy mitochondria.

A child born from this procedure would carry the genes of three people since mitochondria contain a small amount of DNA.

The HFEA’s advice ignored the concerns of critics, who see it as “crossing the Rubicon” and entering a new world of genetic manipulation.

In a letter to the London Times (March 20), more than 30 bioethicists from around the world expressed grave reservations. “It would be the first time such intentional genetic modifications of children and their descendants were expressly permitted and would open the door to further genetic alterations of human beings with unforeseeable consequences,” they wrote.

Germline manipulation is banned under a number of international agreements to which the UK is a signatory. “Intentional germ-line interventions are prohibited in every national jurisdiction that has considered the issue,” said the bioethicists. “They are also banned under a number of international legal instruments, such as the Council of Europe’s Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine which prohibits the genetic modification of spermatozoa or ova for procreation.”

The California-based Center for Genetics and Society suggested that the HFEA had misrepresented the level of public support, which was based on an on-line survey, polls, focus groups and discussion groups. Taking a closer look at the on-line survey, it found that a majority actually opposed the introduction of mitochondrial replacement. “Clearly this report is meant to ‘advance’ rather than simply document public reaction,” it said. “The picture of ‘public support’ that the HFEA is now painting is misleading at best.”

Despite widespread support for allowing donor-conceived children to know the identities of sperm and egg donors, the HFEA insists that “the resulting child should not have a right to identifying information about the donor, although information exchange and contact could be arranged locally by mutual consent.”

Media coverage of the HFEA’s announcement was largely benign. But the Huffington Post featured a scathing column by Stuart A. Newman, professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy at New York Medical College, which accused the HFEA of promoting eugenics.

“The ironic lesson of the new drive toward DNA-based eugenics (of which the mitochondrial replacement techniques would be the thin end of the wedge), is that despite its being the special initiative of an avowedly progressive sector of biomedicine, it actually brings together some of the most regressive strains of traditional and modern society: valuation of people according to their biological characteristics, parental proprietorship, the marauding entrepreneur and evolution denialism.

“The HFEA’s members may imagine that they are taking cautious steps toward a genetically brighter future, but in actuality they are drawing on darker forces promoting the misuse of technology with clear potential for individual and social harms.”

Michael Cook
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mitochondrial disease
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