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Three-way IVF: 'ethical' to treat disease?

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A new report has suggested that controversial fertility treatment which creates embryos from two women and one man can be ethical.

A new report has suggested that controversial fertility treatment which creates embryos from two women and one man is ethical if used to combat life-threatening diseases.

Instead of taking the traditional approach in IVF -- where two people contribute their genetic material -- "three-person IVF" takes genes from three participants. In doing so, it's possible that the method could be used to stop children inheriting dangerous or life-threatening conditions.

Bioethics is a minefield. The technology and techniques may have been developed, but the go-ahead required to use certain methods in reproductive science can be difficult to attain. How far do you go -- is choosing the sex of your baby ethical or "against nature", and should you abort a fetus if it shows signs of a hereditary disease?

In relation to three-person IVF techniques, some groups believe the process is unnecessary and dangerous. However, the BBC reports that the UK's Nuffield Council on Bioethics believes that the method can be used to spare children from "very severe and debilitating disorders".

The central reason for the debate is mitochondrial disorder. By using three people's DNA, faulty mitochondria -- the power stations of the body found in cells -- can be replaced, and any which are mutated or defective can be eradicated. This, in turn, can prevent the disorder, which causes weakness in muscle tissue, blindness and eventually can lead to heart failure.

In the UK, approximately one in 6,500 are born with the condition. In the United States, the rate is approximately one in every 3000-4000.

Mitochondria is always passed down through the matriarchal line. Using three-person IVF treatment, core genetic material is taken from the mother and father, but is then placed into a healthy donor egg. Therefore, instead of inheritance rates ranging from 25 - 100 percent -- depending on whether the genes are recessive or dominant -- the child's risk rate would be removed completely.

As a consequence, 0.1 percent of the child's genes would be inherited by the donor. However, those developing the technique do not see the donor woman as a 'third parent' -- so laws on sperm or egg donation should not apply.

Leader of the inquiry Dr Geoff Watts said:

"If further research shows these techniques to be sufficiently safe and effective, we think it would be ethical for families to use them if they wished to, provided they receive an appropriate level of information and support.

They could offer significant health and social benefits to individuals and families, who could potentially live their lives free from what can be very severe and debilitating disorders."

The objections raised against the technique are varied. From an envisioned future of beautiful, feature-picked designer babies (are you thinking Huxley's Brave New World yet?) to the slippery slope of when modifications become too many modifications, religious perceptions of 'playing god' or on the grounds of safety, in vitro science will always raise concerns and issues of ethics.

Dr David King, the director of Human Genetics Alert, is one to raise such concerns. He said:

"Just as Frankenstein's creation was produced by sticking together bits from many different bodies, it seems that there is no grotesquerie, no violation of the norms of nature or human culture at which scientists and their bioethical helpers will balk.

The proposed techniques are both unnecessary, and highly dangerous in the medium term, since they set a precedent for allowing the creation of genetically modified designer babies."

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority will start a public consultation in September to debate the issue.

Interested? Read more on inheriting mitochondria (.pdf)

(via the BBC)

Image credit: Flickr

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure