Myth busting the mitochondria vote today

Myth busting the mitochondria vote today

Posted on 3.2.15

By Tracey Sainsbury

I was privileged last night to attend a debate in Parliament ahead of today's vote on whether embryos can be created using mitochondrial donation. The incredible new technique is proposed, not to enable three parent babies, but to prevent the often devastating conditions associated with mitochondrial disease. 

The MPs discussion and vote today will not pave the way for all clinics to offer this treatment, instead if would enable to HFEA to explore further, providing individual licences if and when it was deemed appropriate to do so. 

Mitochondrial donation

Mitochondria are contained in every cell, acting as a source of power and have their own DNA, this mDNA represents approximately 0.1% of the DNA content of each cell and is quite distinct in its purpose, in that it does not contribute to an individual's characteristics.

A child conceived would not inherit mitochondria disease as their cells are powered by the healthy mitochondria from the donor

Mitochondria are always inherited from a mother, where there are genetic mutations in the mitochondria any child conceived would be affected with a mitochondrial disease.

There are two ways to perform mitochondrial donation:

Maternal spindle transfer. The nucleus is removed from the eggs of the donor and then introduced to the egg of the intended mother prior to fertilisation.

Pronuclear transfer. The mother's egg is fertilised first and the nuclear DNA containing the genetics of both parents is placed inside the donor egg containing the healthy mitochondria. 

The genetics of the parents would be passed to any child conceived, but a child conceived would not inherit mitochondria disease as their cells are powered by the healthy mitochondria from the donor.

Myth busting

I wondered as the debate began, with equally passionate speakers both for and against, if my thoughts would change. I work with people considering egg donation on a daily basis and the increase in donors means this is now a much more available option.

But people with mutations in their mitochondria are not experiencing infertility, poor ovarian reserve, egg quality issues or recurrent implantation failure, they are hoping that a new technique can enable them to use existing medical practices in a different way to produce a healthy child, rather than conceive naturally a further child whom they know too would be affected by mitochondrial disease.

The debate did raise a few interesting points, we acknowledge now how important it is for any child conceived through donor conception to be able to access the identity of their donor as an adult, with mitochondrial donation the donor, as with organ and blood donors, would remain anonymous. This raised questions around the shortage of donors with a further suggestion that most donors were infertile, coerced and/or vulnerable. 

At this point I wanted to shout an objection. At the London Egg Bank the donors I work with on a daily basis attend because they are aware of their fertility, of the importance of family. They have an altruistic element to their personalities that brought them to the clinic in the first place, together with an ability to understand the impact of being donor conceived for any offspring they help to create, whilst demonstrating their autonomous ability to think creatively as they are donating as non-anonymous donors.

It was interesting that having spoken often throughout the debate on the risks associated with egg/embryo manipulation, when asked towards the end, if the two speakers against the further exploration of mitochondrial donation would have voted in favour of IVF, both said yes. It left me feeling incredibly confused.

If the mitochondria are the power source then the brand of battery you use does make a difference

A teenager mentioned prior to the event that he thought it was a bad idea. He argued that if the mitochondria are the power source then the brand of battery you use does make a difference. He would only use a certain brand of battery in his wireless remote and games console as anything else caused lag… He questioned, could you guarantee a person wouldn’t experience lag if you swapped the power source?

This made me think more carefully about the issue than anything mentioned in the debate. But it also confirmed that we need to trust the HFEA and their team of expert scientists, they will assess if and when it is appropriate to grant licences for treatments to be further explored." 

Tracey Sainsbury is the fertility counsellor at the London Women's Clinic and sits on the National Donation Strategy Group and Lifecycle Editorial Board which was set up to raise awareness of donation and improving the care of donors in the UK.

Vote update

The vote to allow the creation of babies in the UK using this new technique was passed in the House of Commons on February 3, 2015 by 382 votes to 128. For more information please visit the Lily Foundation or Progress Education Trust websites. 

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