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HFEA takes soundings on new form of IVF

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is seeking opinions on a new form of IVF designed to avoid mitochondrial disease by producing embryos that share DNA from three people.

The technique, known as mitochondria replacement, creates a healthy embryo using nuclear DNA from two parents, plus mitochondria from a female egg donor. The DNA from the donor mitochondria represents only a tiny fraction of the resulting embryo’s DNA.

The changes amount to genetic modification of the germ line, meaning that the donor’s mitochondrial DNA would be passed to future generations.

“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”, said Lisa Jardine, chairwoman of the HFEA. “We find ourselves in unchartered territory, balancing the desire to help families have healthy children with the possible impact on the children themselves and wider society.”

Although around 0.5 per cent of babies have some form of mitochondrial disease, most have mild or no symptoms. “Of this, a much smaller percentage would have the severity that would require this intervention”, said Neva Haites, chairwoman of the HFEA group overseeing the consultation. “I would think it would be in the realm of 10 or 20 women who would come forward to consider it [every year].”

Asked to conduct the public consultation by the Department of Health, the HFEA has launched an interactive website to explain the science of mitochondria replacement and collect opinions from the public. The technique is lawful in the laboratory but the resulting embryos cannot be used for treatment. The technique is not practised anywhere in the world.

The HFEA will not take a position on the technique, except to describe the balance of public opinion. Jardine explained that the HFEA’s analysis, due in Spring 2013, will be nuanced. “This is not a poll,” she told a news conference, “so this will not end up with 57% say yes, 43% say no.”

The final decision on whether to allow the transfer of embryos to women will reside with the health secretary. It would require only a change in regulation, not legislation.

The consultation runs until 7 December. Events will be held in London and Manchester, with dates yet to be confirmed.