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Peter Saunders blogs on 'three parent' embryos

Published: 15th April 2010

The papers this morning (15 April) are full of reports that researchers at Newcastle University have successfully produced 'three parent' embryos as a first step to preventing maternally transmitted mitochondrial disease.

There are about 50 different known mitochondrial diseases which are passed on in genes coded by mitochondrial (as opposed to nuclear) DNA. The diseases range hugely both in severity and clinical features. For most there is presently no cure and little other than supportive treatment.

Using defective embryos left over from IVF, the Newcastle team have managed to produce about 80 embryos and to grow a small number up to the eight-cell and blastocyst stage. The embryos were produced by transferring the pro-nuclei from zygotes with abnormal mitochondria into zygotes with normal mitochondria from which the pro-nuclei had been removed.

The work has been financed by the Medical Research Council, the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign and the Wellcome Trust, and has been headed by Alison Murdoch and Doug Turnbull.

The group are now pushing for a change in regulations to allow them to experiment using normal embryos – either 'spare' ones left over from IVF or new ones produced specifically for this research.

We need to be clear in the first instance that this 'treatment', even it were eventually to be shown to work (and there is considerable doubt about that), will do nothing for the thousands of people already suffering from mitochondrial disease or for those who will be born with it in the future. It is primarily about trying to prevent people with mitochondrial disease being born. Or at least helping a very small number of mothers who carry the gene to have children who don't.

It would be a great tragedy if in trying to resource this unproven new technology we were distracted from finding effective treatments and providing supportive and palliative care to those who are already suffering with mitochondrial disease.

And we need to remind ourselves that there are already some solutions available for those couples who find themselves in the tragic position of carrying genes for mitochondrial disease – including adoption and egg donation (although I have serious ethical reservations about the latter).

But apart from that I have three big questions:

1. Will it work? I am very sceptical
2. Is it ethical? There are huge ethical issues
3. Is the debate being handled responsibly? No, there are huge vested interests involved

I have a great sense of déjà vu here. There is always in this country huge media hype about supposed breakthroughs in biotechnology, and the IVF industry – especially the Newcastle group – is very skilled in arousing media interest.

But we have been here before with human reproductive cloning (the Korean debacle); so-called therapeutic cloning for embryonic stem cell research (which has thus far failed to deliver while technology using adult stem cells and cord blood, though relatively unresourced, goes from strength to strength) and animal-human hybrids (now a farcical footnote in history).

We saw the false dawn most clearly with animal-human hybrids where the biotechnology industry, scientists, patient interest groups and science journalists on the UK nationals duped both the public and Parliament into legalising and licensing animal-human hybrid research to produce stem cells. But even before the ink was dry on the 2008 HFE Act researchers and investors were recognising that the technology would almost certainly not deliver – that there were more effective ethical alternatives available (such as induced pluripotent stem cells or IPs)

Nonetheless the Prime Minister had already informed Parliament that animal-human hybrid research would save millions of lives. He is noticeably very quiet about it now.

The Newcastle unit is a world leader in promising much and delivering little – but given the short attention span of the media and the gullibility of the public few people seem to realise, remember or care.

The UK broadsheets this morning largely transcribe the spin of the Newcastle unit's press release – while giving scant attention to the questions of safety, efficacy and ethics being raised by commentators in scientific journals and blogs. Some questions that you will not hear asked or answered:

What will be the effect on the embryos of the small amount of abnormal cytoplasm containing defective mitochondria that is still being transferred?

Will any of these embryos survive beyond blastocyst stage? (cloned human embryos and animal-human hybrids produced by similar 'nuclear replacement' technology haven't)

If they do survive will the nucleus from one embryo function properly with the cytoplasm of another?

Will the progeny be normal or be suffering from defects that are in fact worse than mitochondrial disease itself? (We know that cloning by nuclear replacement is possible in frogs, difficult in mammals, hugely problematic in non-human primates and currently not possible in humans)

Why are we proceeding with this work in humans when similar work in primates (published in Oregon last year) is less than one year old?

What about the hundreds of embryos that have already been destroyed in the research?

What will be the psychological effect on any progeny of the fact that their DNA is derived from three separate 'parents'?

What will be the effect of the introduced transmissible DNA on future generations?

We also need to realise that the Newcastle scientists have huge financial and research-based vested interests that make it very difficult for them to be balanced and objective in the way they present their findings. Getting the regulatory changes (which incidentally now no longer involve Parliament but only approval from the health minister) and research grants to continue and extend their work is dependent on them being able to sell their case to funders, the public and decision-makers. And they know that is best achieved through attention-grabbing media headlines and press releases and heart grabbing (but highly extreme and unusual) human interest stories that are selective about the truth.

What is currently happening in Newcastle may be legal in Britain – but it is illegal in almost every other Western country for good public safety and ethical reasons. Britain is regarded by many as a rogue state in all this.

So I'm not letting myself be carried away by the hype and spin. And I'm not holding my breath about the promises of therapies in three years. And I will be actively opposing any extension of the licence to enable these researchers to be extending their work to use any more 'spare' embryos with all that that involves.

Based on Peter Saunders' Blog where you may go to comment.

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