30 January 2012
The attitudes towards in-vitro fertilisation treatment have long been divided. With some commentators fully supporting the idea of artificial insemination and others stating that it goes against the course of nature, it should come as no surprise that opinions are set to be stirred with the revelation that three-parent embryos could be the done thing in the near future.
In a bid to put an end to mitochondrial disease, the government is seeking public opinion on the legalisation of embryos created with components from three DNA sources.
The use of a 'third-party shell' for the DNA of two people undergoing the fertility treatment has been proposed as a possible solution to putting an end to defective genetic material in the egg in order to eliminate rare mitochondrial diseases.
Public health minister Anne Milton said: "Mitochondrial disease, such as muscular dystrophy, can have a devastating impact on the people who inherit it. People who have it live with debilitating illness and women who are affected face passing it on to their children."
She explained that scientists have developed the new procedure to prevent these conditions being passed on through the IVF fertility treatment.
"Such a procedure would not be allowed in treatment under current law, so we are consulting the public as to whether we should change the law," Ms Milton added.
Furthermore, minister for universities and science David Willetts added that the government is committed to getting regulations surrounding this sensitive decision right in a way that demands confidence from both the public and healthcare professionals.
"As with all developments in cutting-edge science, it is vital that we listen to the public's views before we consider any change in the law allowing it to be used," he commented.
Currently during the IVF process, eggs are removed from the ovaries and fertilised with sperm in the laboratory, but under the proposed changes for three-person modification, embryos will undergo a more thorough change.
According to the Human Fertilisation Embryology Authority (HFEA), 45,264 women had IVF treatment in 2010 - combining 57,652 cycles of treatment in that year. The number of women undergoing fertility treatment rose by 5.9 per cent between 2009 and 2010.
Furthermore, IVF success rates from 2009 show that 25.2 per cent of treatments using a woman's own fresh eggs resulted in a live birth, down 0.6 per cent on 2008.
Groups representing families struggling to conceive naturally welcomed the decision to gauge public opinion on the three-person IVF proposal.
"It will be quite a long time before this is available as a clinical service and our primary concern is to make sure the technique is safe. But it would be sensible and reasonable to offer it to prevent these conditions," Alastair Kent from Genetic Alliance UK told BBC News.
Additionally, professor Doug Turnbull from Newcastle University suggested that the advanced treatment could help to cure the problem that every year hundreds of patients are seriously affected by mitochondrial disease.
The figures from the HFEA showed that the majority of women undergoing IVF treatment are aged 35 and under. However, an increasing number of older women are looking to have children through artificial measures, with 4.9 per cent of women aged 43 to 44 receiving treatment.
A recent study by professor Debbie Lawlor and fellow researchers at the Medical Research Council in Bristol found that the chance of women over 40 becoming pregnant through fertility treatment is significantly increased with the use of two embryos.
The risk of multiple births is increased in older women as they are less likely to be able to carry two foetuses to full term.
"Our findings provide some support for the transfer of two embryos in women older than 40 years," Professor Lawlor explained.
Commenting on the most recent IVF developments, Mr Willetts concluded that scientists have made an important and potentially life-saving discovery in the prevention of mitochondrial disease, but it could be a slow process to get the legal distinction in line with public approval.
Posted by Philip Briggs
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