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British authorities have recently made a public consultation to address a very controversial question: Is it ethical to use fertilization techniques to create babies from three parents? The fertilization technique uses three parents to prevent the transmission of a very rare mitochondrial disease that can have devastating effects. This mitochondrial disease is transmitted exclusively from mother to child. This disorder is caused by defects on the mitochondria, which are also known as the cell’s “engine”. Such defects may cause muscular atrophy, blindness, gastrointestinal disorders, and cardiac diseases.

Legalizing a three-parent family

With the process of In Vitro Fertilization, the defective mitochondria can be extracted and replaced. A healthy donor provides the mitochondria. But as mitochondria contain their own genetic coding, the embryo produced with such methods will have DNA from three different sources: their parents and the donor. In London, it is permitted to replace the defective mitochondria inside a lab. However, the method is still not legal to create human embryos yet. The public consultation will be organized by the British Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA). If the majority of people agree to such methods, the British government may legalize them.

Changing your DNA and your parents?

The mitochondria are in charge of providing cells with enough energy. They are then transmitted from the mother’s ovule to the baby. The father’s sperm does not transmit mitochondria at all. The embryo with replaced mitochondria would transmit the altered DNA to all its future generations; this constitutes one of the main objections made toward the procedure. “The mitochondria replacement method affects the ovule’s genetic coding. This is a very controversial subject. Many think we are entering unexplored territory”, mentions Lisa Jardine, president of the HFEA. “Once the genetic modification is done, we have to be totally sure that everything is correct”, she added. “It’s a matter of balancing both sides of the issue. We want to help many families by providing them healthier children. However, we must make sure that such procedures don’t have a negative impact on society” Jardine mentioned.

This is not the first time the issue is discussed. The Nuffield Company touched upon such matters past June. They concluded that the treatment was ethical. The Human Genetics Alertse group opposes the procedures, deeming them “unnecessary, dangerous, and would become a precedent for designing genetically modified babies on the future.” Even if British authorities consider the techniques ethical, more studies will need to be done before complete legalization. It is estimated that one of every 200 children is born with some kind of mitochondria defect.