A controversial new IVF technique, which would give children three biological parents and could lead to designer babies, is being considered for regulation by the Government’s fertility watchdog.
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has asked the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to assess the safety and effectiveness of the procedure.
Pro-lifers had expressed alarm last April when the ‘three-parent IVF’ experiments came to light, warning that the consequences of such experiments are unknown.
The experiments, developed by a team at Newcastle University, have been designed to help overcome problems of parents passing harmful genetic conditions to their children.
Pro-life campaigner Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, warned: “This is a form of genetic engineering”.
She said the controversial technique “raises serious safety and social concerns, and challenges our concepts of the nature of parenthood.”
Dr David King, Director of Human Genetics Alert, told BBC Radio Four’s Today Programme, that there are “significant risks to the child from manipulating embryos in this way”.
Scientists want to use the process to combat genetic problems affecting the mitochondria – the ‘batteries’ inside all cells that create energy for the whole body to function.
The scientists take a one-day old human embryo from a mother with malfunctioning mitochondria, and extract the inner part of the cell which contains most of the DNA.
Then they take another one-day old human embryo from a second, donor mother.
This is then stripped of almost all of its DNA, by destroying its inner part, leaving just the egg shell containing its healthy mitochondria ‘batteries’.
These two elements are combined with the healthy DNA from the natural mother and father and placed in the donor’s egg to create a new human embryo.
This means the scientists create an embryo with three genetic parents.
The HFEA has asked scientists with relevant expertise to submit evidence by next Tuesday, for review on 25 March.
If the technique is approved by Mr Lansley it is likely to be put to a vote in both Houses of Parliament.
If approved by Parliament, Professor Doug Turnbull who leads the research team at Newcastle University, could apply for a licence to treat patients.
The research is funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council, and the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: “We have asked the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to co-ordinate an expert group to assess the effectiveness and safety of a new technique to treat mitochondrial disease.
“This is in response to a request from researchers asking the Department of Health to make new regulations under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act to allow this treatment.
“This treatment is not currently possible under current legislation. We welcome scientific innovation and this group will investigate the safety of this technique reporting back to us.
“When the group reports back, and based on the evidence available, we can decide whether it is the right time to consider making these regulations.”
Last April a Department of Health spokesman stressed there are “serious ethical considerations” involved before the experiments are extended.