Scientists have secured a £6m funding grant to investigate a new technique for in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) which could revolutionise the passing of hereditary diseases.
The technique involves using genetic material from a third donor, in order to help remove hereditary heart, muscle or brain conditions which could be passed from parents to the newborn child.
The method is not without its critics, who argue that the involvement of a third person’s DNA into a donor egg would mean that the baby would inherit a tiny part of their genetic code from a third human being.
The law on genetic implantation currently forbids insertion of such an egg into a human mother but this could be reviewed if the technique was proven successful.
The research is being conducted by the Wellcome Trust and Newcastle University, which yesterday announced the securing of new funding to continue the project. The additional money will be used to fund lab work aimed at assessing the safety of the procedure.
The Department of Health has ordered a public consultation on whether this technology should be moved from the lab into patients, and the House of Commons has indicated that a debate will be held on the matter.
The Secretary for Health, Andrew Lansley, has the power to lift the legal regulations if both political and scientific criteria are met. If this were to happen, the therapy could be trialled in humans within two to three years.
The technique involves replacing the part of DNA which codes for mitochondria, a part of most human cells which produces energy for the cell to grow and divide. This small section of DNA is inherited exclusively from the mother, meaning that any defect can be passed directly to children.
One in 200 children in Britain suffer from some form of mitochondrial defect, which cause severe diseases like muscular dystrophy or ataxia in about one in 6,500 people.
“The important thing is that this has the possibility of stopping the disease completely,” said Professor Doug Turnbull who is leading the research.
“If this technique proves to be as safe as IVF and as effective as the preliminary studies, I think we could totally prevent the transmission of these diseases in future,” he added.
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