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Public consultation launched into pioneering technique

People’s views are being sought on a technique developed at Newcastle University to prevent mitochondrial disease, a rare but devastating medical condition.

The Human Fertility and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has today launched a public consultation to gather people’s views about the social and ethical impact of new techniques to prevent mitochondrial diseases being passed down the maternal line.

They are being developed by Professors Doug Turnbull and Mary Herbert alongside colleagues at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research at Newcastle University, which was opened last week.

Mary Herbert, Professor of Reproductive Biology said: "We want to make a difference to the lives of our patients who live with mitochondrial diseases. These can seriously affect the quality of life of both patients and their families and it often affects several generations.

"If we can stop that happening it will be a tremendous help for many hundreds of people who suffer with these diseases.

"We are now undertaking experiments to test the safety and efficacy of the new techniques and hope that this will inform the HFEA's decision making process.  This work may take three to five years to complete."

The technique involves transferring nuclear DNA, which contains our genetic make-up, between two human eggs to replace defective mitochondria – the 'batteries' that power the cells in our bodies. When these batteries fail, patients can develop devastating mitochondrial diseases with symptoms often affecting those tissues most heavily dependent on energy, such as the heart, muscles and brain.

The techniques have already been shown to work in the laboratory, but in a review of the scientific evidence, the HFEA last year requested further experiments to assess their safety before they can be safely and acceptably used in clinics for patients. Whilst this work is being undertaken, the HFEA is simultaneously consulting the public on its views towards these potentially controversial techniques.

Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, says: “The work of Professor Turnbull and colleagues holds great promise for preventing previously incurable diseases and giving families affected by these diseases the chance to have healthy children, something most of us take for granted. The HFEA consultation provides an important opportunity for us to discuss with the public why we believe this technique is essential and to listen to any concerns they may have.”

Watch a video about how mitochondria disease can affect patients and the potential of the pioneering technique  and details of the consultation can be found on the HFEA website.

Further information on the work of the team at Newcastle University.

published on: 17 September 2012