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Britain's parliament allows human genome manipulation for first time

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By Robert Hackwill
Britain's parliament allows human genome manipulation for first time

Mother’s day may be about to get more complicated in the UK after parliament voted to allow a three-parent IVF technique.

It is designed to eliminate the possibility of mitochondrial diseases being transmitted to children. As these come through mothers only, the technique removes faulty DNA, replacing it with healthy material from a female donor.

“This will be the first time that we would intentionally manipulate the human genome. It is something that governments around the world have agreed for the last 20 years that we shouldn’t do, and once you cross that line, then it’s very hard to stop going down the slippery slope to designer babies,” says the Director of Human Genetics Alert Dr. David King.

Advocates say it would be cruel to continue to allow the incurable disease to occur which affects around one in every 6500 births, and 11 international campaign groups are supporting the British government to take the unprecedented step.

“When you have a baby, and find out that your baby’s ill or got something that you’ve got, and life expectancy for a child with mitochondria is very short, very short. And I think that’s devastating for a woman,” says Olivia Seaby, who carries the defective DNA.

Few would dispute man is playing God in this case, but a kindly and benevolent one. The danger, say some, is once the precedent is set, characteristics some maintain add variety and richness to the human experience will be airbrushed away.


Mr Robert Meadowcroft, chief executive of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign in the UK

“We support this research because it will lead to effective treatment for devastating mitochondrial disorders. In the UK there is a very tight regulatory and licensing regime, so fears of a slippery slope are misplaced.

“A vote in favour of regulations is important because these conditions can lead to severe disability and early death for children.

“These disorders include muscle weakness, loss of sight, loss of hearing and therefore this opportunity now to take the next step should be seized.

“In terms of ethics this is a not a route to ’designer babies’ because the mitochondrial cells do not influence the characteristics of the baby. This is not leading to a blue-eyed, fair-haired child. This is purely about healthy battery-type cells.

“It is an important step and we in this country have reviewed and carried out several public consultations. It is clear the majority of the population support the next careful steps.”

James Lawford Davies, a partner at medical specialist lawfirm Lawford Davies Noon

“There has been a lot of confusion about the effect of the regulations and it is important to note that they do not allow the use of this technique.

“They allow the HFEA to consider applications for the technique to be used. This is an important distinction.

“The HFEA is yet to licence application details. It will look at the safety and efficacy of the treatment proposed. You may think there will be a floodgate and everyone will be treated.

“The HFEA may never allow the treatment to be used or it may take some time before it is satisfied that the treatment is appropriate for licencing.”

José Bové, co-leader of the European Green Party

“The transfer in an embryo of mitochondrial DNA from a third person crossed a new line. For the first time, a human being will be genetically modified, which will have an impact on all his descendants. Some geneticists have not understood that the knowledge they cling to as absolute certainties will be invalidated quickly by their own students. Science is only a fleeting truth.

“The other fundamental question we ought to ask ourselves is to know whether our societies are obliged to accept everything considered possible by some technicians in laboratories.

“For instance, must we accept in the future human cloning because we can clone animals? Must we enter with our eyes closed into a transhumanist future concocted by some directors at Google and other corporations? I say no. Our society must not bow to the diktats of sorcerer apprentices.”

Jane Ellison, UK Public Health Minister
“This is a bold step for parliament to take, but it is a considered and informed step. For the many families affected, this is light at the end of a very dark tunnel.”

Fiona Bruce, British Member of Parliament “Once this alteration has taken place, once the gene is out of the bottle, once these procedures that we’re asked to authorise today go ahead, there will be no going back for society.”