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'Three-Parent' IVF Technique Set for Approval

By Peter Russell
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Sheena Meredith, MD

June 28, 2013 -- The U.K. could become the first country to approve a cutting-edge in vitro fertilization (IVF) technique to prevent babies from being born with certain rare, crippling genetic disorders.

The technique produces embryos containing DNA from three people to help prevent serious mitochondrial diseases that are passed on from mother to child.

The government will publish proposed regulations later this year.

What are mitochondrial diseases and how does this controversial IVF technique work? Read our FAQ.

What are mitochondria?

Mitochondria are parts of cells. They make energy that cells in our bodies need in order to function. They are sometimes referred to as the cell's "batteries." They are passed from mother to baby.

What are mitochondrial diseases?

When babies are born with defective mitochondria, they can develop serious health problems, such as heart and liver disease and respiratory problems. It can even lead to death in infants.

How common are mitochondrial diseases?

One in 6,500 babies is born with mitochondrial disorder.

What is the "three parent" IVF technique?

The technique involves transferring genetic material from the nucleus of an egg or embryo from a woman carrying a mitochondrial disease into an egg or embryo from a healthy donor that has had its nuclear DNA removed. This means the resulting embryo will have the affected mother’s nuclear DNA but will not inherit the mitochondrial disease, allowing a woman carrying defective mitochondria to have healthy children.

The resulting embryo has the nuclear DNA of the mother and father, but the mitochondrial DNA of the donor -- which explains the label "three-parent" IVF treatment.

Are there any ethical problems?

The government in the U.K. says a public consultation found there was general support among U.K. citizens for mitochondria replacement, subject to strict safeguards and careful regulation.

The technique could save around 10 lives each year, the government says.

Sally Davies, the government's chief medical officer, says in a statement: "It’s only right that we look to introduce this life-saving treatment as soon as we can."

What happens next?

Proposed regulations will be published later this year and put out for further public consultation.

These regulations will set out strict safeguards covering when and how the technique can be used.

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