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Behind the headlines – 'Three-person IVF'

Last week there was worldwide press coverage about a decision taken by the UK government to support three-person IVF.  The decision will see the UK government produce draft regulations later this year, with the procedure potentially being offered within two years.

Many experts believe three-person IVF could eliminate debilitating and potentially fatal mitochondrial diseases that are passed on from a mother, through her egg, to her child.

While mitochondrial diseases are rare, affecting around one child in every 4000 births, the effects can be severe and leave sufferers starved of energy, with muscle weakness, cardiac problems, and blindness. At its worst, mitochondrial disease can cause death.

Mitochondria are often referred to as the ‘powerhouses’ of human cells. They are the structures within the cells which produce the energy required for cells to grow and divide.

Research now suggests that using mitochondria from a donor egg or donor embryo can prevent the diseases, hence the term ‘three-person IVF’ (the BBC website has an excellent graphic which explains this further).

The aim is to offer a couple the chance to avoid having a child with mitochondrial disease if they are known to be at risk, for example if they already have a child affected. This would work in much the same way as existing genetic testing techniques (including preimplantation genetic diagnosis).

Many people, and indeed opponents to this technique, are quite understandably concerned about who would access it, and whether it is a step towards ‘designer babies’. It’s important to be clear that although DNA, which contains our genetic code, is found in the mitochondria; it accounts for only 0.01% of a person’s total DNA, all of which is contributed by the mother.

The overwhelming majority of DNA is found in the nucleus of a cell, equally contributed by the mother and the father, and which remains unaffected by this type of treatment.  Therefore the genetic link for parents and their children in these situations is 99.9%.

Current federal legislation in Australia bans this type of treatment because it combines the DNA of more than two people, but the decision taken in the UK this week suggests it is time for increased societal and legal debate here too. Most experts agree that as the technology is so new, there is no evidence to prove the safety of the process and that a significant study is still required.  But certainly for a small number of couples in Australia, this technology could allow them to have their own child and avoid a terrible disease which greatly reduces quality of life.

Have mitochondrial diseases affected you? Please share your experiences and opinions with us...

More information on preimplantation genetic testing at IVFAustralia, Queensland Fertility Group and Melbourne IVF>>