UK OKs 3-Person IVF: Perspectives

With the House of Lords vote yesterday, the UK officially became the only country in the world to have legalized human genetic modification. The point of this “mitochondrial transfer” or “3-person IVF” technology is not directly to genetically modify humans specifically, but it still will lead to that result in any case.

The noble goal of this experiment is to prevent mitochondrial disease, but it is not quite that simple as the children produced (if any healthy children are produced) would have genomic elements from 3 human beings even if one of them contributes about 1000 times less than the other two. I would still call that a genetic modification. For example, plants and animals with even a single gene transferred to them from elsewhere are defined as GMOs.

Now we can hope that this technology is safe and effective, but we can and should do more than hope.

We can continue to ask for data, transparency, and accountability as this work proceeds. I’m not so sure that these elements are part of the law that passed as some had said that reporting of outcomes would not be required. Does anyone know for sure?

The proponents and practitioners-to-be of this work in the UK have, to use their own words yesterday, “won”. As they proceed with this experiment, I believe that they should account for every single mitochondrial transfer embryo implanted in women using this technology and publicly report the outcome data for each. Healthy birth? Miscarriage? Developmental Disorder? Problem in childhood later on? Genome integrity?

It is medically and scientifically crucial for the scientists and doctors involved to collect and publicly report all this data in a timely manner. This can be done while still protecting the privacy of the families involved.

I hope very single one is a healthy child, but as with all experiments there is no way to be sure in advance.

9 thoughts on “UK OKs 3-Person IVF: Perspectives


  1. Paul,
    Do you think this decision will play a factor in the news about the Cambridge University research on turning skin cells into egg and sperm? Been seeing a lot of ‘hyped’ headlines saying same-sex couples can have babies “soon” or “in 2 years”. Thoughts?


    • Hey Kevin,
      I’m not sure. Both would involve a major change to standard reproduction and go well beyond standard IVF. IPS cells are really powerful cells that show signs of being able to make germ cells. A 2 year timeline is hype.


  2. Dear Paul, it’s a bit weird that you as highly educated and knowledgeable scientist, are concerned by technique that has been introduced more than 10 years ago. It was proposed by Jacques Cohen as substitute for egg donation in case of egg functional incompetence. It was and is considered as less invasive than nuclear transfer, keeping the recipient egg as main performer. The cases were performed and reported by him as well as followers. Yes, the followup is required similarly to regular IVF, where concern for increased malformations was actual until almost recently and data still collected prospectively. Thus, just let it go, please.


    • Hey Nathan,
      I know the Cohen experiment.
      It’s not that simple as you portray the comparison.
      Cohen’s methods were to take some cytoplasm from a healthy egg donor and simply inject it into the egg of an infertile woman.
      It yielded, after IVF, children with genetic modification and 2 women contributing genetic material like the new methods proposing “mitochondrial transfer”, but it’s very different in other ways. The new methods are nuclear or spindle transfer and involve oocyte enucleation.
      For a short time 20 or so years ago, during a time of little-to-no FDA regulation of fertility clinics, Cohen, et al. conducted these oocyte cytoplasm transfer experiments in the US. Some were later done in China.
      All yielded very mixed results including miscarriages, developmental disorders, and chromosomal damage along with some kids who seemed healthy. The FDA essentially banned it soon after.
      Very little to no data has been collected on the children.


  3. Paul… it may not be easy to be the voice of reason in the wilderness. .. but please keep it up.


  4. Paul, I agree…please keep up being the voice of reason. After reading this document, I’m so baffled as to how this passed and question the real motive/s behind this and who really stands to profit from it. The “experts” that the UK’s Parliament listened to appear to the same who will profit. All that we are taught in terms of critical thinking have been abandoned.

    http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/science-technology/Mitochondrial%20donation/MITCorrespondence.pdf


  5. Hi Paul,

    Given that close to 100% of the children born to these women without this technology will suffer horribly, what percentage of miscarriages, or horrible complications should we consider acceptable?

    Bone marrow transplants after chemo in an attempt to cure leukemia kill around 20% of the people that undergo it, but when the alternative is horrible death, most are willing to try it. Under the logic which you seem to be applying to ‘mitochondiral transfer/3p-IVF” this procedure would not be allowed.

    You can also argue that these women just shouldn’t be allowed to have children… but that is a whole other can of worms.


  6. nobody really has the right to forbid these people from having children. and even if the technology doesn’t work at all, the children won’t suffer more if they had been produced the traditional way


  7. The most common of the known mitochondrial diseases caused by mtDNA mutations are LHON, MELAS, Leigh Syndrome, NARP, MERRF, and CPEO & KSS. Again, while the figure of 1:5000 keeps getting tossed around by those advocating this technique, that figure represents those who will develop a mitochondrial disease over their lifetime, and the disease can manifest in varying degrees of severity. That said, for those mtDNA mitochondrial diseases that present at birth or childhood, the prevalence for LHON is 1:50,000; MELAS is unknown; Leigh Syndrome is 1:36,000; NARP 0.8-1/100,000; MERRF is 1/400,000; and CPEO and KSS is 1:100,000. Which begs the question why the urgency to move forward until we’ve had time to verify the safety?

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