Blog: Three Parent IVF

Sam Yarnold
16th February 2015

Dr Trevor Stammers, Programme Director in Bioethics and Medical Law at St Mary’s University, Twickenham and Editor of The New Bioethics, explores in this blog the concerns surrounding the three-parent IVF legislation, which is currently awaiting vote in the House of Lords.

There can be little doubt that the UK science- media machine is in overdrive in urging the Government to give the green light to three-parent IVF and if those contributing genetic material to a child are its genetic parents, this is a correct term to use and certainly more accurate than ‘mitochondrial transfer’ when in fact the only thing transferred is the nucleus of the birth mother’s egg.

However there is not only widespread concern amongst scientists across the world but increasingly in the UK itself that at our current stage of understanding of the interactions between mitochondrial and nuclear DNA, this proposed new therapy is in fact nothing more than an uncertain experiment; though intended as miracle cure, it could turn out to be a monstrous mistake.

Though one cannot but have profound sympathy with those mothers who are carriers of mitochondrial disease who have seen one or more of their children die, we have already seen HEFA -hype dissolve in disappointment before. Only a few years ago, legislation to allow the creation of animal-human hybrids was pushed through parliament on the grounds that this was absolutely necessary to allow the development of embryonic stem cell cures for many diseases from Parkinsonism to Alzheimer’s. Since then there has been little or no progress and many of those pressing for the change in the law then, have since turned their attention to other more promising (and more ethical) options using adult stem cells.

Now we have facile analogies of these new mitochondrial techniques being ‘like a change of batteries’. However a change of software in a computer may be a more accurate picture. Recent research has shown that the mitochondria are far more than a power source – they interact with the nucleus in yet poorly understood ways. One only has to read the whole of the recent submissions to both Government and to the HEFA to see that those raising serious doubts about the safety of the techniques far outweigh those in support of proceeding in our present state of knowledge (or more accurately ignorance) of mitochondrial function.

No one wants to see desperate parents deprived of hope but neither do we want to see vulnerable parents misled into thinking three-parent IVF offers a certainty of eliminating mitochondrial disease and a healthy child being born. Too many voices across the world are raising well-founded doubts about that before proceeding now. Only a foolhardy physician would want to lead the charge into what may prove to be genetic Balaclava. We are galloping into genetic engineering of humans which will enter into the germline for the very first time. The fact that many of its advocates are denying that it is genetic engineering at all and likening it to an ‘organ transplant’, is deeply disturbing. If the truth is not being told about what is being proposed, what trust can we have in their reassurance about the outcome?