Leading science journal Nature has praised Britain’s science-based approach to policy making in an editorial on experimental in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) techniques that could significantly reduce the number of children born with severely disabling or life-threatening mitochondrial genetic conditions.
The editors note that, although procedures of this type were banned in 2008, the ban also specified a road map for introducing further testing of the techniques when the field was sufficiently developed. In 2011, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Agency (HFEA) published a report concluding that the procedures were sufficiently safe to continue research and proposed a strategy for moving towards clinical trials.
Earlier this month, Vince Cable and Andrew Lansley jointly asked the HFEA to begin a consultation process with the public on translating this novel research area into possible preventative treatments for mitochondrial disease.
Mitochondrial defects affect around 160 babies born each year in the UK and can lead to up to 150 diseases linked to the genetic traits passed on from their mothers. Some of these diseases are fatal or severely disabling and may manifest as muscle weakness, poor growth, loss of motor control and heart problems.
The new procedures involve combining the nuclear DNA of the parents in IVF as normal, but transferring mitochondrial DNA from a second donor in order to avoid passing on genetic disease carried by the baby’s mother.
The leader in the field is Professor Doug Turnbull at Newcastle University, who has been awarded £4.4m by the Wellcome Trust to begin testing of the novel procedures on healthy human eggs.
The Nature editorial notes that a combination of the open-minded and evidence-based approach by the government and regulatory agencies and the maturity of the research places the UK ‘light years ahead of other nations’ in tackling mitochondrial disease. They conclude:
About one in 200 women passes a mitochondrial disease on to her children. In Britain, those children have a chance of a better future because scientists and politicians, for once, are seeing eye to eye.