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More Research Needed For ’3-Parent’ Fertility Treatment

April 19, 2011

A British expert panel said on Tuesday that more research is needed before “3-parent” fertility treatments designed to prevent some incurable diseases can be considered safe for clinical use.

The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) said the evidence suggested the methods were safe, but more laboratory experiments should be done before they are used in clinics.

The techniques involve intervening in the fertilization process to remove faulty mitochondrial DNA, which can lead to mitochondrial disease.

The treatments effectively replace mitochondria, which act as tiny energy-generating batteries inside cells, so a baby does not inherit faults from its mother.  Mitochondria are only passed down through the maternal line.

One of the methods swaps DNA between two fertilized human eggs, while another swaps material between the mother’s egg and a donor egg before fertilization.

About one in 6,500 children are born with serious diseases caused by faulty mitochondrial DNA.

Last month, Britain’s Health Minister Andrew Lansley asked the HFEA to coordinate an expert group “to assess the effectiveness and safety” of the treatments.

Some scientists and IVF experts in Australia are also calling on the government there to lift a ban on the creation of embryos containing DNA from three people.

The HFEA group said in its report that it was “optimistic” about the potential of the techniques and noted that current evidence “does not suggest that the techniques are unsafe.”

“Nevertheless, these techniques are relatively novel, especially applied to human embryos, and with relatively few data to provide robust evidence on safety,” it said.

“The panel therefore urges that additional research be undertaken to provide further safety information and knowledge.”

Professor Doug Turnbull, one of the scientists at Newcastle University leading the research, said that his team was already working on some of the extra experiments the HFEA asked for.

“But this will take time,” he said in a statement. “Our work relies on the generosity of donors who provide eggs for us to use in our research.”

Medical charities and research organizations urged the government to start on preparing legislation, which would make the techniques legal.  This would allow doctors to use them as soon as they get the scientific and ethical approval.

“Given the importance of such research for couples wishing to have children free of mitochondrial disease, and the speed at which research in the field is developing, researchers and patients now need assurance that such techniques will move into the clinic,” they said in an open letter to Lansley on Tuesday.

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