Three Way IVF

The latest research from Newcastle University, published in the journal Nature, shows that a revolutionary IVF technique using genetic material from 3 people can give hope to childless couples who avoid having children to prevent passing on a serious genetic illness to the child from the mother.  This controversial technique allows women who have faulty mitochondrial DNA to have healthy babies using a combination of their genetic material, their partner's and healthy mitochondrial DNA from another woman.

The Technique

Using IVF, the parent's egg and sperm can be fertilized and the parents' genes transplanted without the faulty mitochondria into a second donor egg. This donor egg would have the entire donor DNA removed apart from the healthy mitochondria. This would mean that 98% of the baby's genetic material would come from the parents and 2% would come from the donor. The mother and father would be the genetic parents of the baby in all aspects, except that the genetic disease carried by the mother wouldn't be passed on. However, it would mean that the baby would have 3 genetic parents, which causes some ethical concerns.


At the moment this technique, although feasible and tried out in the lab with monkeys, is currently illegal in Britain. The Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, has asked the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to review the safety of the technique and report back to Parliament. If MP's approve the technique and make the necessary changes to the legislation, a baby could be born using this new form of IVF by the end of 2012.


At the moment scientists are only allowed to test embryos during the first 14 days after conception. This means that the researchers would have no idea about any long-term consequences of the technique. If there were any health issues or other problems, they would only be revealed after the baby was born. There are also worries that it is 'tampering with nature' and that the long-term genetic implications are unknown. This manipulating of DNA means that there are ethical concerns that need to be addressed. For example, this technique could lead down the road to 'designer babies' or other unknown and possibly damaging health effects or undesirable social consequences. If a child knew that it had three genetic parents, this could cause some confusion for the child in the future. There could also be some legal implications, which would need to be sorted out before this technique became commonplace.


For parents who have seen children die because of serious genetic health problems, this could be the answer to their prayers. Because the child would have all the parents DNA, apart from the faulty mitochondria, the child would inherit all the parents' characteristics in the usual way, except that the child wouldn't inherit a deadly disease. This means that the parents would be able to see their children grow up and live a normal life. As the child would be the child of both parents, there would also be none of the emotional problems for either the parents or the child that sometimes happens when a donor egg or sperm is used.

Other Options

The current alternative of using traditional IVF using a donor egg and the father's sperm means that the baby is only the genetic child of the father. For some women, even though they give birth to the baby, the fact that the baby isn't their genetic child causes them distress. Another alternative treatment that doctors currently use is pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to pre-screen the embryos before transplanting a healthy embryo into the womb.

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