London: Members of the public are being asked to give their opinion on whether a fertility treatment that eliminates hereditary disease by engineering babies to carry healthy DNA from a third biological parent should be made legal or not.
It made legal families with a genetic risk of incurable conditions like muscular dystrophy can use the DNA of a third party to create healthy children, a newspaper reported.
Although the resulting babies would inherit a small fraction of their DNA from the donor and not their mother or father, the procedure would spare all future generations from a host of rare and debilitating conditions.
The technique is currently forbidden as a treatment, but a public consultation has been launched that will help inform a decision by Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, on whether the clinical benefits outweigh any ethical concerns.
Experts accept the technique, which involves genetically modifying a human egg or embryo, enters “unchartered territory” and raises serious ethical questions.
As well as the moral implications of engineering embryos, there are questions over how the procedure would impact on a child`s sense of identity and whether they should be allowed to contact the donor later in life.
If Hunt decide to give the treatment the green light the technique could be written into law as early as next year, making Britain the first country in the world to allow human trials.
Lisa Jardine, chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which is conducting the consultation, said the issue was of “enormous public interest”, and not just to affected families.
“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 said.
About 99.8 per cent of our DNA, including all our visible characteristics, is contained in the cell nucleus and is passed down from our father and mother in equal measure.
But a small fraction consisting of 37 genes is located in the mitochondria, the tiny structures, which supply power to cells, and is inherited solely from the maternal side.
The new technique, being developed by researchers at Newcastle University, is designed to tackle a range of genetic conditions passed to children by their mothers through mutations in these genes.
The mutations can cause cells to malfunction or fail completely, resulting in complications which are especially severe in parts of the body which use the most energy - the brain, heart and muscles.
By removing the nucleus from a woman`s egg before fertilisation and implanting it into a donor egg that has had the nucleus removed, and then using the egg in traditional IVF, doctors could cut damaged mitochondria out of the family line.
A similar technique could be used on an embryo by removing the nuclear DNA from the mother`s egg and father`s sperm and implanting them into a healthy donor embryo with its nuclear DNA removed.
The resulting child would inherit their identity from their mother and father, but they and all future generations would have the mitochondrial DNA of the donor.
A survey of 800 people by the Progress Educational Trust found that two thirds supported the use of the technique while a third opposed it, while a report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics last year claimed the approach would be ethical.
The public consultation, being overseen by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, will run until December 7 with members of the public encouraged to register their views via a dedicated website.
There will also be two public events held in London and Manchester where people can learn about the technique and register their views.