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Published on September 4th, 2014 | by Chris Cooper-Davies
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Mitochondrial Transfer in British Politics

Mitochondria, sometimes referred to as the battery pack of a cell, is passed to us from our mother’s egg. Therefore, if a woman has mitochondrial disease she will pass it to her children. For most people this is not a problem because the majority of the one in 200 people in the UK who have mitochondrial disease are not seriously affected by the condition.

But for others- approximately one in 6,500 babies in the UK- symptoms can be very serious. Cells fail to function; people get seizures, strokes, blindness, deafness, heart failure and liver failure. Most who suffer with this strand of the condition do not survive into adulthood; at present there is no cure.

The government has been exploring the possibility of adopting a cure- or rather a method of prevention- since 2010. Since then it has commissioned several studies by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) into the process of mitochondrial transfer. In 2008, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 was even modified to allow for the introduction of the new process sometime in the future.

Essentially, mitochondrial transfer involves taking the nucleus of the egg cell of a mother with bad mitochondria and merging it with good mitochondria from a third party donor (see above diagram). The resultant child, created from a cell devoid of bad mitochondria, will thus be born without a mitochondrial disorder. At present, after pioneering work in America, around 30 or 50 people in the world have been born this way. Undeniably, the process has transformed the standard of living for these children. Alana Saarinen, one of them, is a ‘healthy’, ‘typical’ teenager who wants only to thank the woman who allowed her to be that way.

Although children born from mitochondrial transfer will technically contain DNA from three people- two women and a man- the mitochondria donation from the third party donor will have no impact on their physical  characteristics because physical characteristics are entirely determined by nuclear DNA- all of which will be taken from the child’s primary mother whose bad mitochondria needed replacing.

Despite positive experimentation with the process, support in the UK parliament is far from unanimous. On Monday, a motion was moved in the House of Commons which called upon the government to delay bringing forward regulations on mitochondrial replacement.

Arguments for the delay were diverse. Many, such as MP for Congleton Fiona Bruce, were primarily concerned about the inconclusive results of recent pre-clinical trials. They cited a report by the HFEA which concluded that ‘there are still experiments that need to be completed before clinical treatment should be offered.’ The fear is that, although the process will save children from mitochondrial disorders, there is a possibility it will lead to ‘genetic abnormalities’ in later life. It is vital, Bruce concluded, for the HFEA to conclude and publish all pre-clinical trials, and then have them peer reviewed, before parliament is asked to vote on the issue. Otherwise MPs will be forced to vote blind on a procedure that could bring with it numerous health risks.

Such a contention caries much weight. It can, however, be countered by the crucial predication that pre-clinical trials can only take us so far. As numerous other MPs- including the Parliamentary under-Secretary of State for public health, Jane Ellison- were quick to point out, all clinical trials carry with them a degree of risk. It is weighing this risk up against the potential benefits which is important, and in the case of mitochondrial transfer, the benefit certainly outweigh the risks. One only has to look at the example of Alana in America to learn that the quality of life for those who opt in is transformed. Moreover, continuing research until the level of risk has been significantly reduced could take years and there are plenty of couples out there eager to try the process as soon as possible. Surely, denying them the chance to start a family now is wrong.

Others argued against the process on principle. Proponents of this stance come from all parties. Included among them is the charismatic MP for North East Somerset Jacob Reec-Mogg, who has taken time off from perpetual euro-scepticism to oppose yet another great example of human progress.

Besides the medical risks, he and others argue, the process of meddling with the genetic foundations of a child is tantamount to eugenics and sets us on a slippery slope towards ‘designer babies’. As well as this, they continue, allowing for a child to be born with three or even four parents opens the door to numerous social and psychological problems.

The eugenics argument was skilfully put to bed by MP for Havant David Willets. Mitochondrial transfer, he pointed out, is actually the opposite of eugenics. ‘Eugenics was about forced sterilisation. It was about saying to people who were thought to carry some disease, “We’re not going to allow you to have children.” This is the opposite. It is about saying to people, “We want you to be able to have children and to be able to do so free from the anxiety that they will be bearing some disease.”’

The latter argument, about the social and psychological impact of genetically having three or four parents was skilfully put to bed by MP for Cambridge Dr Julian Huppert and Jane Ellison. Huppert compared mitochondrial transfer with organ donation and asked the principled opponents whether they considered a recipient of a donated liver to have a third parent because they possessed three people’s DNA. Thereafter, Ellison, on a non-technical note, pointed out that Parenthood is not about genetics; it is about love and compassion. The principled arguments against having ‘three parents’, therefore, reduce ‘the notion of parenthood to genes’, which is absurd. She also pointed out the important distinction between mitochondrial and nuclear DNA. It is the latter that makes us who we are; and none of that DNA will come from a third party.

With the motion to delay the bringing forward of the new regulations passed it is unclear how the government will proceed. The option of hanging on until the HFEA has conducted more research would perhaps be wise in order to ensure a change to the law makes it through the House. However, the risk of waiting is that new trials might forestall new fears and consequently provoke new trials and continuous delays. A seemingly endless cycle could follow which would only serve to strengthen the arguments of the principally opposed.

As previously stated, pre-clinical trials can only tell us so much. Eventually, we will have to make the leap of faith. It is surely better to make that leap of faith now, and maintain Britain’s status as a leading international pioneer in medical science, than wait, learn little, and allow other nations to pass us by.

Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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MA history student at SOAS

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