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U.K. may be first to allow "three-parent" in vitro fertilization

Britain to allow babies with three genetic pa... 01:37

The U.K.'s National Health Services (NHS) announced Friday it has drafted regulations for "three-parent IVF."

The agency said if the draft regulations get approved by the British Parliament, the U.K. will be the first country in the world to allow the controversial form of in-vitro fertilization that includes genetic material from three parents.

The innovative technique, called "mitochondrial transfer," is designed to prevent mitochondrial disease, the NHS explained.

"Mitochondrial disease, including heart disease, liver disease, loss of muscle co-ordination and other serious conditions like muscular dystrophy, can have a devastating impact on the people who inherit it," said Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies in a statement. "Scientists have developed groundbreaking new procedures that could stop these diseases being passed on, bringing hope to many families seeking to prevent their future children inheriting them. It's only right that we look to introduce this lifesaving treatment as soon as we can."

Mitochondrial diseases are caused by mutations that can lead to failures of mitochondria, which are specialized energy factories found in every cell, according to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation. These problems cause less energy to be generated by cells throughout the body, which are necessary to support growth and sustain life.

Depending on which cells are affected, symptoms may include pain, weakness, loss of motor control and muscle movement, gastrointestinal disorders, liver disease, heart disease, diabetes, respiratory problems, seizures, and vision and hearing problems.

The foundation adds that every 30 minutes, a child is born who will develop a mitochondrial disease by age 10.

The NHS said that unlike DNA, the genetic material contained in mitochondria is passed to a child only from the mother. That's where the new IVF comes in.

The technique replaces mom's mitochondria with that of healthy mitochondria from a female donor, cutting risk for the diseases. For the procedure, doctors would need unfertilized eggs from a patient and a healthy donor. Then they remove the nucleus DNA from the donor's egg and replace it with the mom's nucleus DNA. According to the NHS, that means the child would have genetic material from three people: 99 percent from mom and dad, and 1 percent from the donor.

This has raised ethical concerns. The NHS noted on its websites that questions presented include if the child has the right to know who their "third parent" is or if the donor should remain anonymous. Also, the long-term psychological effects for the child who learns they came from three parents is unknown.

"Opponents of these types of treatments cite what can be broadly summarized as the "slippery slope" argument; this suggests that once a precedent has been set for altering the genetic material of an embryo prior to implantation in the womb, it is impossible to predict how these types of techniques might be used in the future," the NHS said in a news article on the proposed IVF regulations. "Similar concerns were raised, however, when IVF treatments were first used during the 1970s; today IVF is generally accepted.

In March, Britain's fertility regulator, Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority announced that there was no evidence the technique was unsafe, and that there was broad public support for the treatment.

"Although some people have concerns about the safety of these techniques, we found that they trust the scientific experts and the regulator to know when it is appropriate to make them available to patients," Lisa Jardine, chair of the authority, said at the time to the Associated Press.

The new technique, which was first reported as experiments in 2008, would likely only be used in about a dozen U.K. women every year, according to the AP.

The technique has also been studied in the United States.

Researchers at the Oregon Health & Science University said in Oct. 2012 they successfully made embryos that contained genes from one man and two women. Their published findings showed they were able to successfully transplant DNA into 64 unfertilized eggs from healthy donors.

Experts who opposed the technique expressed fear for what the future may bring.

"These techniques are unnecessary and unsafe and were in fact rejected by the majority of consultation responses," Dr David King, the director of Human Genetics Alert, told the BBC. "It is a disaster that the decision to cross the line that will eventually lead to a eugenic designer baby market should be taken on the basis of an utterly biased and inadequate consultation."

The regulations will be voted on by Parliament in 2014, according to the NHS.

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