In February this year, British MPs historically voted, by a majority of 254, to amend the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 to allow mitochondrial donation.1

Should the amendment be approved by the House of Lords,  it will permit IVF babies to be created using biological material from three people,2  in an effort to prevent babies being born with devastating genetic diseases.

Mitochondrial diseases in babies are caused by a mother passing defective mitochondria to her baby.The amendments will allow IVF procedures to essentially swap a fraction of the mother’s   DNA and replace it with that of another female donor, whose mitochondria is not defective.

Mitochondrial donation can be performed in one of two ways, either:

  1. embryo repair is performed by fertilising two eggs with  sperm, creating an embryo from the intended parents and another embryo from the donor.  The nuclei from the parent’s embryo and the donor’s embryo are removed and the nucleus from the parent’s embryo is added to the donor embryo  (which contains healthy mitochondria) and implanted in the mother’s womb. Or;
  2. egg repair involves collecting eggs from the mother with damaged mitochondria and from a donor with healthy mitochondria.  The majority of the genetic material is removed from both eggs and the mother’s genetic material is inserted into the donor egg, which is then fertilised by sperm.

Advocates of mitochondrial donation argue that in circumstances where mitochondrial genes are responsible for the cell’s energy, and are not responsible for inherited traits that make us who we are (such as appearance or intelligence) it is an appropriate step to take to protect babies from genetic diseases.

Others argue that it is the first step towards the creation of ‘designer babies’ and have concerns regarding the moral and ethical question of whether sacrificing two early human lives is acceptable to produce a third.

So what do these developments mean for Australia, where it is estimated that one in 5,000 babies are born with a severely disabling form of mitochondrial disease.

Under Victorian legislation, it is unlawful to perform a “treatment procedure” using sperm produced by more than one person or oocytes3 produced by more than one person, or more than one embryo that is not from the same two people.4  Similarly, at  a Federal level the use of an embryo produced by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) (a variation of mitochondrial donation) is prohibited in reproduction.5  Mitochondrial transfer for research purposes is possible under current laws in Australia, provided that licensing approval is granted and that the embryo is created for no longer than 14 days.

A legislative review was conducted and completed in Australia in June 2011.  The prevailing consideration which was reflected by the majority of submissions, was whether the legislation should be tightened or narrowed, rather than broadened.

It was ultimately recommended that the provision in the current legislation regarding SCNT should not be amended and that the legislation should not change in relation to the use of DNA from  more than two people. The review committee did not consider that techniques were sufficiently advanced to be permitted.

In favour of allowing mitochondria donation, the Australian Mitochondrial Disease Foundation has called on the Australian government to reconsider its position against the human embryo research necessary to develop mitochondrial replacement techniques.6

There are, of course, lobby groups opposed to mitochondrial donation on an ethical basis. Such groups are concerned that should legislation for mitochondrial replacement be passed in Australia, there is a high possibility that it will open the floodgates to complete manipulation of the human germline.

In the ever-shifting landscape of medical advancements, it will be interesting to see whether whether Britain’s progressive attitude towards mitochondrial donation will be adopted in Australia.