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Gene watchdog opens door to fertility technique that gives children THREE parents

Germline therapy - the alteration of genes in eggs or sperm - could be made legal by Parliament next year. Critics say it's wrong to tamper with the sanctity of life and consequences for future generations are uncertain.

The creation of genetically-modified babies could win Parliament’s backing next year.A law change would allow for children to be ‘designed’ to be free of  horrific diseases that can kill within hours of birth.The children would effectively have two mothers and one father.Green light ahead: A change in the law could soon permit the creation of genetically modified babies free from congenital diseases. Supporters say the genetic engineering of eggs and embryos will help couples who have suffered the trauma of multiple miscarriages and the deaths of their newborns because of genetic diseases.

But critics say it is wrong to tamper with the sanctity of life, especially when the consequences for future generations are uncertain. Germline therapy, or the alteration of genes in eggs or sperm, is banned in most countries. It could lead to the creation of designer babies, made to order by hair or eye colour. Lisa Jardine, of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, a Government watchdog, said: ‘We find ourselves in uncharted territory, balancing the desire to help families have healthy children with the possible impact on the children themselves and wider society. The issue has been thrown into the spotlight by today’s launch of a public consultation into the science and ethics of genetically engineering eggs and embryos to create babies free of incurable muscle, brain, heart and digestive illnesses. These conditions are caused by defects in the DNA of mitochondria – the tiny, sausage-shaped powerhouses inside cells that turn food into energy. Serious defects affect around one in 6,500 babies and cause around 50 genetic diseases, many of which kill in infancy. Women carrying diseased mitochondria often face the heartbreaking choice of whether it would be kinder to remain childless.

To get round this, Newcastle University scientists are developing two techniques in which the mother-to-be’s diseased mitochondria are swapped for healthy ones from an egg donated by another woman. Successful ‘mitochondrial replacement’ would eliminate the disease from future generations of the family, while allowing the couple to have children that are genetically their own. Any child would also have a small amount of DNA from the woman who donated the egg but it is not thought this would affect looks or personality. Professor Mary Herbert, one of the researchers behind the technique, said: ‘We want to make a difference to the lives of our patients who live with mitochondrial diseases.’

The treatment is currently banned in Britain but the law contains a clause that allows it to be amended quickly. The results of the public consultation, which was requested by the Government, could trigger a Parliamentary vote that leads to the treatment being legalised as early as next year. However, even if the legislation is rushed through, it is unlikely treatments will start immediately because the fertility watchdog may require more evidence of the technique’s safety. And the Newcastle researchers estimate this could take them up to five years. Professor Jardine said if the creation of babies with three parents is given the go-ahead, it would have consequences ‘in perpetuity’, adding: ‘It is about many generations down the line, what the consequences might be. It is uncharted territory. The Association of Clinical Embryologists said it hoped for a ‘speedy decision in Parliament so that parents can start to benefit from these techniques as quickly as possible’. Dr David King, of pressure group Human Genetics Alert, said that the ‘minor benefit’ of satisfying the mother’s wish to be genetically related to her child could not justify the risks of tampering with the building blocks of life. Babies with three parents have been born before in the US – also with DNA from two women and one man. However, the technique differed from that being honed in Newcastle and was designed to boost IVF success, not eradicate disease.