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Three-person IVF is 'amazing opportunity' for families blighted by incurable diseases, say ethics expertsCritics caution against opening a 'Pandora's box' which could lead to a trend towards 'designer babies'

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UPDATED:

06:48 GMT, 13 June 2012

The creation of babies with three genetic parents would be an ‘amazing opportunity’ for families whose lives have been blighted by incurable diseases, say an eminent group of experts on ethics in science.

The influential Nuffield Council on Bioethics conceded that while those with religious views might view the advance as an ‘abomination’, there is no ethical reason to stop it, provided it is proved to be safe and effective.

The approval comes as pressure builds on the Government to amend the law to allow the genetic engineering of eggs and embryos, creating babies free of devastating genetic diseases.

Three parents Ethicists have decided that mixing DNA from more than two parents is acceptable if it is used to cure hereditary diseases

Three parents Ethicists have decided that mixing DNA from more than two parents is acceptable if it is used to cure hereditary diseases

The children would effectively have two mothers and one father. Those in favour say it would give couples who have endured the heartbreak of miscarriages and stillbirths, and children who have died while still young, the option of having a healthy family.

But critics say the science is too risky and the safety of the baby should take precedence over a woman’s desire to be a mother.

There are also concerns about the long-term effects of tampering with the DNA at the first stages of life, something known as germline therapy and banned in most countries. Done differently, it could lead to the creation of designer babies, made to order by hair colour or eye colour.

Brenda Almond, emeritus professor of moral and social philosophy at Hull University, cautioned against opening a ‘Pandora’s box’ of problems. She said that if the new technique was allowed, pressure would build to allow bigger genetic changes.

Slippery slope There are philosophers who say that it could be a stepping stone to other kinds of tampering

Slippery slope There are philosophers who say that it could be a stepping stone to other kinds of tampering

Work is being carried out at Newcastle University into incurable diseases caused by faults in mitochondria, tiny sausage-shaped powerhouses inside cells which turn food into energy.

Each mitochondrion has its own DNA that is passed down from mother to child. Serious defects in this affect one in 6,500 babies and cause around 50 genetic diseases, some of which kill in infancy.

Women carrying diseased mitochondria often face the heartbreaking choice of whether it would be kinder to remain childless.

To get round this, the scientists are perfecting two techniques in which the mother-to-be’s diseased mitochondria are swapped for healthy ones from an egg donated by another woman.

A successful mitochondrial ‘transplant’ should eradicate disease from future generations of the family.

The amount of DNA contributed by the donor would be small and it is not thought it would affect the child’s looks or personality.

For this reason, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent body which tries to steer public opinion and policy on advances in health and science, said it would not be right to class the egg donor as a second mother.

It concluded that the transplants would be an ethical option, provided they are shown to be safe and effective.


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