Three-parent babies: what you need to know about IVF plan

Critics say it will lead to 'designer babies' but therapy hailed as 'groundbreaking' by supporters

(Image credit: 2006 Getty Images)

BRITAIN is planning to become the first country in the world to offer "three-parent" fertility treatments to parents who want to avoid passing potentially fatal genetic diseases on to their children. The historic proposal to lift a ban on the controversial IVF treatment still has to be approved by parliament, but it could be available on the NHS as early as next year. Here are five key questions about the ground-breaking therapy. Who would use it? Families with a history of mitochondrial diseases – incurable conditions passed down the maternal line that affect around one in 6,500 children worldwide – would use the therapy. The diseases can lead to fatal heart problems, liver failure, brain disorders, blindness and muscular dystrophy, says Reuters. How does it work? Several three-parent therapies are being developed, but the basic process involves transferring the nuclear material of an affected mother's egg cell into the donor egg of an unaffected woman. The healthy mitochondria – the tiny power packs of the cells – will then be passed on to the IVF baby. The amount of DNA exchanged is less than 1 per cent and would not influence a child's "appearance, intelligence or personality", The Times says. The treatment is known as three-parent in vitro fertilisation because the baby would have genes from a mother, a father and from a female donor. Why is the therapy controversial? Critics say the process is unethical and could be the first step to creating a market for "designer babies". David King, director of the Human Genetics Alert campaign group, described the techniques as "unnecessary" and "ethically unsound". He said: "They cross the ethical line that has been agreed by governments around the world that we should not genetically alter human beings." What do advocates of the therapy say? Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, calls the therapy "groundbreaking" and says clearly-defined regulations are being drafted to make sure it is used appropriately. Dame Sally told The Times the decision to make the therapy available was "not one to be taken lightly", but she felt "very comfortable" about altering mitochondrial DNA. "We will save some five to ten babies from being born with ghastly disease and early death without changing what they look like, or how they behave, and it will help mothers to have their own babies," she told the paper. Are there any risks to the process? There is no evidence from animal studies that the therapy can cause medical problems. Babies born using three-parent IVF would be closely monitored by doctors during their lives for signs of any ill-effects.

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