Later in 2017, researchers at Newcastle University in England will be the first to carry out an innovative fertilization technique known as mitochondrial replacement therapy, or MRT. In simplest terms, MRT combines the genetic material of three people into a single embryo, thus technically leading to a child with three biological parents. The breakthrough comes as
a result of a decision by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, a regulator that determines what treatments and techniques are ethical for in vitro fertilization (IVF) labs to perform. MRT is designed to eliminate faulty genes and replace them with healthy ones, so this development could be key to reducing mitochondrial disease in infants, which can lead to things like dementia, loss of muscle coordination, and sensory issues.
MRT could save the lives of about 150 babies a year in Britain, according to some estimates, but it does carry a bit of controversy. The procedure combines the chromosome-founded genetic material of an IVF couple (Parent A and Parent B) with the chromosome-less egg of a third party (Parent C). The resulting egg carries the chromosomes—genetic material—of Parents A and B while also carrying the healthy mitochondria of Parent C. When this egg reaches the explosive-sounding blastocyst stage of development, it is transferred back into the womb of the IVF parent. This complexity raises some safety concerns, mostly involving the unpredictability of mitochondrial diseases, as well as the common objections from pro-life groups such as the Anglican church and Roman Catholic Church.
Professor Mary Herbert, head of the research team from Newcastle University, said, “Many years of research have led to the development of pronuclear transfer. It’s a great testament to the regulatory system here in the UK that research innovation can be applied to help families affected by these devastating diseases.”