The Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills have asked the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to lead a public consultation on the question of whether the law should be changed to allow current research techniques, for the prevention of the transmission of mitochondrial disease from mother to child, to be made available in fertility clinics.

Readers will be aware that we have been following legal developments relating to this technology over the last 12 months. Although the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 (as amended by the 2008 Act) makes provision for regulations to be passed which would permit the use, in assisted conception, of techniques which alter the mitochondrial DNA of an egg or embryo, the Government gave an assurance that use of the power to make such regulations would only be considered if it was clear that the procedures involved were effective and safe..

A 2011 panel, chaired by Professor Neva Haites and Dr Robin Lovell-Badge, concluded that, although the evidence at that stage did not suggest that the techniques were unsafe, there was very little data for the use of the techniques in humans and a minimum set of experiments was therefore an essential pre-requisite to further progress. That research has been ongoing in the intervening period.

There are two techniques “under the microscope” and currently licensed for use in research:

  • Maternal spindle transfer (MST): This technique involves transferring DNA (spindle and chromosomes) from the mother’s egg (affected by the faulty mitochondria) into a donor egg with healthy mitochondria. The ‘reconstituted’ egg is then fertilised by the intended father’s sperm.
  • Pronuclear transfer (PNT): This technique involves transferring the pronuclei from the intended parents’ embryo (containing the faulty mitochondria) into an enucleated embryo with healthy mitochondria, produced from the separate fertilisation of an unaffected donor egg.

The consultation (the full timescale for which will be announced in the spring) will enable the HFEA to gauge public opinion prior to the delivery of its advice on the wider use of mitochondrial transfer to the Secretary on State.