Researchers in the UK have developed a method of curing a class of genetic disorders by transplanting parts of embryonic cells from one mother to another, creating the possibility of babies with three biological parents.
Researchers at Newcastle University have transferred material from a healthy fertilized human egg into an unhealthy one, repairing the egg’s genetic flaws, Nature magazine reported Wednesday.
The procedure is meant to fix problems with faulty mitochondria — the “cellular batteries” that power human cells. By transferring the mitochondria from a female donor to another embryo, the researchers were able to turn a flawed egg into a healthy embryo.
“As mitochondria contain DNA, a child conceived this way would inherit genetic material from three parents,” reports the Times of London. “The mother and father would supply 99.8 per cent of its DNA, but a small amount would come from a second woman, the mitochondrial donor.”
That possibility has “profound medical and ethical implications,” reports Brandon Kleim at Wired.com. “One issue involves the nature of parenthood: Would a mitochondrial donor be a parent?”
Doug Turnbull, a Newcastle University neurologist who worked on the research, downplayed the idea of a “third parent.”
“What we have done is like changing the battery on a laptop,” he said, as quoted at the Guardian. “The energy supply now works properly but none of the information on the hard drive has been changed.”
About one in 6,500 children are affected by mitochondrial diseases, which can cause “muscle weakness, blindness, heart and liver failure, diabetes and learning disabilities,” reports the Daily Telegraph. There are currently no treatments for mitochondrial diseases.
The Guardian reports the UK’s Muscular Dystrophy Campaign is among the backers of the research.
“These findings will be a ray of hope for people affected by mitochondrial diseases, who can often be left with the heartbreaking decision of whether to have children who may be born with a serious illness,” said the group’s chief executive, Philip Butcher.
He added, “In the future, this technique may give parents the choice to have a healthy child and end the tragic cycle that some families go through, passing on these conditions from generation to generation.”
So far, the research hasn’t moved out of the lab because British law prohibits artificially created embryos from being placed in a woman’s womb. But the researchers behind the project are pushing for a change to the law.
”I would urge the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority to permit fertility treatment using these techniques as soon as the method is proved to be effective and safe in humans,” Butcher said.
Turnbull said that the technique could be available for public use in as little as three years.