Following an invitation from the government, the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has launched a public consultation on the ethics of a new IVF technique that uses DNA from three “parents” to avoid passing on serious mitochondrial diseases.

Professor Lisa Jardine is chair of the HFEA, an expert independent regulator that oversees the use of reproductive cells and embryos in fertility treatment and research. She told the press on Monday, the day of the launch:

“We will use our considerable experience of explaining complicated areas of science and ethics to the public to generate a rich debate that is open to all.”

Mitochondria are the power-houses inside cells. They have their own DNA that is separate from that of the nucleus. In normal human reproduction, mitochondria are normally inherited exclusively from the mother: the small amount in sperm (enough to fuel the journey to the egg) is usually destroyed by the egg cell after fertilization.

Unfortunately, around 1 in 200 children are born each year with a form of mitochondrial disease. For some, this results in only mild or no symptoms, but for others, the symptoms can be severe, resulting in a shorter life. Symptoms include intestinal disorders, muscle weakness, and heart disease.

Researchers have developed mitochondrial replacement techniques that use donated mitochondria to prevent women passing on mitochondrial diseases to their children.

These techniques create healthy embryos that have DNA from three people, most from the father and mother (the nuclear DNA), and a tiny amount from the donor (the mitochondrial DNA). The embryos are then used in normal IVF (in vitro fertilization) treatment.

Use of mitochondrial replacement would affect what the HFEA describes as the “germ line”, that is the donor’s mitochondrial DNA would then be passed on to future generations of the “three-parent” child.

In Britain it is legal to carry out mitochondrial replacement in the lab, but the embryos cannot be used in treatment.

The government has asked the HFEA to seek public views on whether the law should be changed to give couples at risk of having a child affected by mitochondrial disease access to the technique.

Jardine says “the Government has asked us to take the public temperature on this important and emotive issue.”

“The decision about whether mitochondria replacement should be made available to treat patients is not only an issue of great importance to families affected by these terrible diseases, but is also one of enormous public interest. We find ourselves in unchartered territory, balancing the desire to help families have healthy children with the possible impact on the children themselves and wider society,” she adds.

In Spring 2011, the HFEA carried out a review of the safety and effectiveness of mitochondrial replacement. They found that while two of the methods were not unsafe, more research should be done to show they are safe for clinical use.

The Authority recommended a minimum set of experiments that should be done before the techniques can be regarded as safe enough for use in humans.

Following this, a new mitochondrial research centre, funded by the Wellcome Trust, was set up in Newcastle, to carry out the experiments.

Wellcome Trust is one of the medical charities urging the UK government to push forward with legislation to make the mitochondrial replacement IVF treatments available to couples seeking to avoid passing on mitochondrial disease.

The HFEA has already conducted a series of public dialogues over the summer, in addition to commissioning an opinion poll.

The Authority has launched a consultation website with videos and downloads that explain the science and debate the ethical issues surrouding mitochondrial replacement techniques in different ways.

Anyone wishing to register their view can do so online, or by attending one of two free consultation events scheduled for November.

The consultation and public dialogue will be guided by an independent supervisory group of experts and individuals with a personal interest in the issue.

The HFEA expect to report the results to the Department of Health in March 2013.

Note: this article has been amended to correct information about sperm mitochondria.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD