Mitochondria are, in layman’s terms, the batteries or powerhouses of the body’s cells. The effects of mitochondrial disease, caused by mutation in the mitochondrial DNA, are many and varied but can, in the worst cases, result in severe disability or death.

Research led by a team from Newcastle University has developed a technique for use in assisted conception whereby the defective DNA is removed from the mother’s egg and replaced with healthy DNA from a donor, so avoiding the possibility of mitochondrial failure in the child. The result, however, would be an embryo with DNA from mother, father and donor and it is, as the legislation currently stands, illegal to place such an embryo in the womb.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 (as amended) however, allows for regulations to be passed to allow such techniques to be used in assisted conception to prevent the transmission of serious mitochondrial disease. In introducing this provision into the Act in 2008, the then Government gave an assurance that use of the power to make these regulations would only be considered once it was clear that the scientific procedures involved were effective and safe.

The Secretary of State has now asked the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to scope expert views on the effectiveness and safety of mitochondrial transfer. The HFEA has agreed to the request and has established a small core panel, with a breadth of expertise, to collate and summarise evidence from a wide range of experts in the field. The panel, chaired by Professor Neva Haites of the University of Aberdeen, has been asked to submit a report of its findings to the Department of Health by mid-April 2011. The Secretary of State will use this scientific review to inform his decision as to whether to hold a public consultation on introducing the regulations.