Three-Person Babies May Become a Reality in the UK

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“Three-person” pregnancies could begin as soon as next year in the UK, if the recommendation of a panel of experts put together by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is approved.  

The panel, however, also advises that three-person in vitro fertilization (IVF) should be used “cautiously” for women with mitochondrial disease to have healthy kids.

Mitochondrial disease is a rare childhood illness that essentially starves the body of energy and can lead to brain damage, muscle wasting and heart failure. According to the HFEA panel, mitochondrial disease affects roughly one person in 10,000, and possibly 3,500 women in the UK.

Credit: ZEISS Microscopy/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Three-person IVF works by replacing the defective power generator in the mother’s egg, known as mitochondria, with healthy ones from a donor woman. But most of the genetic inheritance comes from the parents.

Evidence suggests that this procedure will fail in one in eight pregnancies. But it is possible — earlier this year the first baby using three-person IVF was born in Mexico.

Some experts, like Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, a researcher who reviewed the evidence, says now is the time to proceed with it.

“We’re not going to learn much more now unless you try it out for real basically – it’s at that stage,” Lovell-Badge told the BBC. “There’s no reason why it shouldn’t go ahead now, but do it cautiously on selected patients where the risk of having a badly affected child is very high.”

Related: U.S. Panel Urges Young Women to Take Daily Folic Acid Supplements

Three-person IVF is not infallible. A study published in the journal Nature suggests that some defective mitochondria could still dominate in one in eight babies and cause the disease.

“Some embryonic stem cell lines did revert back to the mutant mitochondrial DNA,” Professor Paula Amato, who published her findings in the journal Nature, said.

The scientific panel, including Lovell-Badge, said extra checkups during the pregnancies would be necessary to ensure that the baby is healthy.

Early human embryos created with the help of IVF are seen here. Credit: ZEISS Microscopy/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

“It’s likely to be something we have to worry about if the experiments that have been done on embryonic stem cells are representative of embryos that were re-implanted,” Lovell-Badge said. “That’s why we recommend a prenatal diagnosis method to check whether reversion is occurring in the developing fetus.”

If HFEA does decide to proceed with the panel’s recommendations, clinics can apply for licenses to perform the three-person IVF. Then they would be granted permission on a patient-by-patient basis.

“I can’t see it being huge numbers of people using it,” Darren Griffin, a professor of Genetics at Kent University, told BuzzFeed News. “Perhaps hundreds a year, no more than that. But the diseases it causes are so horrendous, and the means of treating it are so limited.”

Related: Twin Girls Conceived 10 Days Apart Due to Rare Phenomenon

Danielle Tarasiuk

Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.