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Mitochondrial gene manipulation

October 2014

The UK cannot ‘afford to cut corners when it comes to public safety’, Fiona Bruce MP has warned. 

Earlier this year, the UK government published draft regulations to allow the mitochondrial donation technique.

However, many MPs, lobbyists and medical professionals have expressed worries over the development of such replacement techniques, which aim to create children who do not inherit mitochondrial disease, by using genetic material from both parents and a third ‘donor’.

The technique involves a process by which defective DNA is replaced with DNA from a healthy donor’s egg, to help women have healthy babies.

Safety concerns

Fiona Bruce, Conservative MP for Congleton and chairman of the all-party parliamentary pro-life group, expressed serious concerns, during a late-night debate, over the safety and efficacy of the government’s proposed mitochondrial replacement techniques.

Responding to a scientific review from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which highlighted concerns for subsequent generations of children born through maternal spindle transfer and pronuclear transfer, she opened the debate.

Ms Bruce said, ‘Before the introduction of such techniques, more research ought to be undertaken and a full assessment conducted of the potential risk to children born as a result.

‘I move that this house calls upon the government, in light of these public safety concerns, to delay bringing forward regulations on mitochondrial replacement’.

Ms Bruce added: ‘In 2011, 2013 and 2014, the HFEA assessed the safety of the procedures, and on every occasion it reported that further research was required before the public could be satisfactorily reassured regarding them.

‘It described experiments as “critical”, with some not even having started in June 2014. It stated that “there are still experiments that need to be completed before clinical treatment should be offered”.

‘Even more concerning, it stated: “The process cannot be expected to guarantee safety or efficacy when applied for the first time in a clinic”.’

‘Hideous diseases’

Countering her motion, Dr Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, asked: ‘Is the Hon. Lady really saying that we should not do anything — no cancer treatment, nothing — until we are absolutely 100 per cent certain that there are no side effects? Does she not accept that we are trying to treat hideous diseases?’

Ms Bruce replied: ‘I accept that in no case can one be 100 per cent sure that a technique will be safe. However, we are very far from that in this case.

‘This is a case of genetic engineering; it is the alteration of a potential human being — the removal of certain genes and their replacement with others, to create children. Surely, in such cases, we should be very careful over safety before we proceed’.

During the debate, Tim Loughton, Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, made the point that mitochondrial disease affects the lives of thousands of people each year.

He said, ‘I am grateful to my hon. friend and respect what she is saying. Safety is paramount, but for every year we delay bringing this science and technology forward, 6500 children will pick up these horrible inherited diseases, and many of them will die’.

Ms Bruce said, ‘A mismatch between nuclear and the mitochondrial DNA could cause severe health problems in children conceived with this technique: problems such as infertility, reduced growth, impaired learning, faster ageing and early death. Are those not sufficiently serious for us to be extremely concerned?’

US concerns

The debate came just days after Parliament reopened after the summer recess, which coincided with news that a US fertility clinic has started to investigate the health of children born more than 15 years ago, whose DNA was a result of a three-parent technique.

According to researchers at the Saint Barnabas Medical Centre in New Jersey, the 17 children who were born using cytoplasmic transfer have never been assessed to see whether they have associated health problems.

Approximately 30 babies globally were born as a result of cytoplasmic transfer, which was banned by the US government in 2001.

However, as a result of the UK’s prolonged debates over maternal spindle transfer and pro-nuclear transfer — the proposed methods for use in the UK — the US Food and Drug Administration raised concerns about the process, citing instances of Turner Syndrome, whereby children are missing one of their two sex chromosomes.

In a statement from Christian Concern, the lobby group highlighted worries voiced by bioethics expert Dr Calum MacKellar. He claimed the techniques proposed in the UK may carry medical risks for children and for future generations.

Profound ethical questions

Dr MacKellar also said the plans raise ‘profound ethical questions about the destruction of embryos in research’.

In June, after the HFEA released its report, Paul Tully, general secretary of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said, ‘Human gene manipulation is being sold to a gullible public on a promise of reducing suffering.

‘Gene manipulation can only be pursued by breaking several important moral rules. Those rules are not trivial. They are designed to uphold human dignity, the integrity of science and the international community.

‘Human germ-line manipulation and cloning — changing the genetic inheritance of future generations — goes against internationally-agreed norms for ethical science’.

He warned that the techniques would not stop at the treatment of mitochondrial disease, adding: ‘Who is to decide what other so-called flaws in people’s genes should be “corrected”?’

It is not without reason that the psalmist writes in Psalm 139:13-16: ‘For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

‘My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be’.







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