Britain could become the first country in the world
to allow IVF treatment to create babies using DNA from three people,
according to a decision by the Department of Health announced Friday.
The decision affects couples who risk passing on inherited diseases. They would be allowed to use DNA from a second donor mother.
New regulations will be issued for public consultation later this year and then debated in parliament next year. Lawmakers are to be given a free vote on the issue.
Experts believe the technique, which is being developed at Newcastle University in the north of England, would then be used to create five to 10 babies in the most serious cases every year.
The new in vitro fertilization treatment works by replacing the DNA in the cell's mitochondria, the "power packs" that provide the cell's energy.
However the DNA in the nucleus, which determines each person's individual characteristics, such as hair colour and body shape would be unchanged.
About 6,500 babies are born each year in Britain with mitochondrial disorders, which can lead to serious health problems, according to the Department of Health. Some 12,000 people live with those problems.
"Mitochondrial disease, including heart disease, liver disease, loss of muscle co-ordination and other serious conditions like muscular dystrophy, can have a devastating impact on the people who inherit it," said Sally Davies, chief medical officer.
"Scientists have developed ground-breaking new procedures which could stop these diseases being passed on," she continued. "It's only right that we look to introduce this life-saving treatment as soon as we can," she said.
But critics fear that the new technique would be a slippery slope to so-called designer babies. They say that mothers could use eggs from donors or adopt children.
Josephine Quintavalle, from the group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said the move had been "presented simply as innovative genetic treatment when it is in effect an endorsement of highly contentious germ line modification of the human embryo."
A child conceived with the technique "would be no more healthy than children conceived using standard egg donation," said Anscombe Bioethics Centre, a Catholic academic institute.
"Moreover, the child would be at greater physical risk from the new procedure, and might well have more serious problems of identity," it said in a briefing paper.
But the decision received far-reaching support among the medical profession.
"It will enable families with mitochondrial disease to have access to more reproductive choices and the opportunity to have children free of the illness," said a spokeswoman for the British Medical Association.
John Tooke, the president of the Academy of Medical Sciences said he was "delighted" with the news, and added: "It is also a positive step towards ensuring the UK remains at the forefront of cutting edge research in this area."
Davies herself said she was "very comfortable" about the decision.
"I do think quite carefully about ethics, I always did as a clinician and I still do, perhaps because my father was a theologian," she said.
"We will save some five to 10 babies from being born with ghastly disease and early death without changing what they look like, or how they behave, and it will help mothers to have their own babies."
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