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The evening of Tuesday 24 February saw the House of Lords vote (280 votes to 48) against a move to block a planned law change to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, allowing fertility clinics in the UK to carry out mitochondrial donation.


The technique, which involves IVF using DNA from a mother, father and a female donor, has polarised opinion, but many health science professionals, including senior biomedical scientists, have also hailed it as a major step forward in medicine.

While critics point to the ethical and safety concerns, leading doctors, biomedical scientists and clinical scientists have come out strongly in favour of the change, which will provide a preventative treatment for currently incurable genetically transferred conditions, such as muscular dystrophy. "This is an important step in the prevention of transmission of serious mitochondrial disease," said Professor Doug Turnbull of Newcastle University, one of the country's leading neurologists and an ardent supporter of research training for clinical scientists.

Mitochondrial DNA disorders affect one in 5,000 of the UK population. In 2013 NHS England established the Rare Mitochondrial Disease Service for Adults and Children, based in three centres in Newcastle, London and Oxford, with multi-disciplinary teams including consultant clinical scientists, neurologists and geneticists. As well as providing publicly accessible information, the service's website makes doctors, clinical scientists, biomedical scientists and other healthcare professionals aware of the diagnostic and management options.

Not all scientists and academics are in favour of the three-person baby concept. There have been warnings about birth defects, as well as increased risk of cancer and premature ageing. "Even if these babies are born they will have to be monitored all their lives," argued Dr Trevor Stammers, Programme Director in Bioethics and Medical Law at St Mary's University, "and their children will have to be as well." According to a recent report in the Daily Telegraph, scientists at Great Ormond Street hospital and University College London argue that just 80 per cent of mitochondrial disease is caused by the mutation in the mitochondria and 'more time should be spent looking into the genetic causes'.

It is worth highlighting though, that the recent approval by the House of Lords won't give 'carte blanche' for the technique to be used. Fertility clinics will have to apply for a license and each application will be judged on its individual merits.

Despite the controversy, it's generally agreed that the consultation process has been a positive experience, not just for the medical and scientific communities, but also for affected families. "None of us can understand the impact of mitochondrial disorder as well as they do, so their voices need to be heard," commented Dagan Wells, Associate Professor at the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre, University of Oxford. "The way in which rigorous scientific research and vigorous public debate have been carried out in parallel in this instance will serve as a model for how ethically challenging scientific advances should be considered for clinical use in the future."

Are you a clinical scientist, biomedical scientist, medical lab assistant or other health science professional with views on the issues raised in this article? Please leave your comments below.

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