UK scientists to replace 'powerhouses' of egg cells
Dr. Kirsty Horsey
Progress Educational Trust12 September 2005
The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has issued a licence to a team of scientists who want to carry out research on human embryos aimed at preventing genetic conditions caused by faults in the 'powerhouses' of the cell. Researchers at the University of Newcastle want to remove the genetic material from a fertilised egg, and transplant it into another, unfertilised egg that has had its own genetic material removed. In this way, they hope to replace the fertilised egg's faulty mitochondria - tiny structures found in a cell that are responsible for energy production.
Mitochondria contain around 37 genes, and several serious inherited diseases are caused by mutations in this DNA. The researchers hope that by transferring the nucleus of a cell that has faulty mitochondria to a healthy egg cell, they will be able to develop a new treatment for these mitochondrial disorders. But critics are alarmed by the move, since it would result in embryos that have a tiny amount of DNA from the egg donor, as well as its own parents.
The HFEA initially rejected the team's application, saying that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 forbids 'altering the genetic structure of any cell while it forms part of an embryo' (at paragraph 3.4, Schedule 2). However, team leader Professor Doug Turnbull lodged an appeal earlier this year, and the HFEA appeals committee has now ruled that the research should be allowed to go ahead.
The committee heard that the phrase 'genetic structure' had no precise scientific meaning, the authority stated in a press release. It also looked at the history and background of the HFE Act, and considered a 2005 ruling by the House of Lords (Quintavalle v HFEA), which dealt with the interpretation of the Act. James Lawford Davies, Associate Solicitor at Bevan Brittan LLP, who acted for Newcastle said: 'This case highlights why the government's review of the law in this area is needed. It has taken a year and a half and three committee hearings to reach a resolution in this matter. This is largely due to the ambiguity of the 1990 Act which was drafted at a time when research of this kind was nothing more than a theoretical possibility'.
Professor John Burn, head of the Institute of Clinical Genetics in Newcastle, said he was confident that the appeal committee's decision 'is within both the letter and the spirit of the law'. He added that 'it is a debatable issue...but mitochondria are not part of the genetic material that we consider in a sense makes us as human beings'. He likened replacing faulty mitochondria to changing a camera battery that doesn't work for one that does, adding 'changing the battery won't affect what's on the film, and changing the mitochondria won't affect the important DNA'.
Josephine Quintavalle, of the pro-life pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE), accused the HFEA of 'turning this country into the wild west', adding: 'Wherever they see a law they jump over it. Babies don't need two mothers'. And LIFE's Matthew O'Gorman told the Daily Mail that 'we support all ethical attempts to find cures for disabilities but one cannot countenance the creation of genetically abnormal children, however noble the motive might be'. However, Professor Burn stressed that 'what we are trying to do is help a group of people that suffer from a very serious disease', adding 'what we are not doing is trying to make 'designer babies''.
Reproduced with permission from BioNews, an email and online sources of news, information and comment on assisted reproduction and genetics.