Mitochondrial Transplant

Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Dr. Jon Stanley


The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority's decision to approve mitochondrial transplant to prevent inherited mitochondrial disorders is a welcome one.  

Though this has been suggested to create three parent babies the truth is it creates one healthy child.  The DNA that makes us who we are lies within the centre of every one of our cells, the nucleus...and not in mitochondria.

The engine of each cell has its own software called mitrochondrial DNA. It is not inherited from both our parents but instead only from our mother. This alone makes it obvious it is not part of our core identity. Rather like we become ill if our kidneys fail and benefit from a kidney transplant, a mitochondrial transplant is a kind of organ donation. 

It has two powerful impacts on a child. The first is that the child can expect to have a much better quality of life than before and even improved survival. The UK was a pioneer in organ transplant that saves thousands of lives a year in our country alone.  The second is that when girls are born with a mitochondrial transplant their own children in the future can also expect a normal healthy life too.

Decades after no fault divorce, sperm donation and alternative family structures brought about real three parent families with very mixed results, we should welcome debate into what really forms a nuclear family and how we can promote the two parent family in the modern era.

When a child has its nuclear DNA created from those of both its parents, that's about as nuclear a two parent family as you can get.  Caution in the face of facts is very different from caution in the face of ignorance and suspicion.  Medical ethics continues to see, rightly, genetic manipulation of humans as a minefield but this new technique from a conservative perspective is far less radical than the social changes affecting families that have been thrust upon us over the last 50 years. 

The number of people expected to benefit from this will be small, perhaps 50 or so cases per year.  Many children are born using in vitro fertilisation of which this is simply a modification. Prepartum surgery is now performed in many centres, where pathology is identified and treated before a child is born, which has allowed major advances in techniques to be developed. 

IVF does have significant disadvantages over unassisted conception and it is wise we review the evidence as it emerges over whether it is continued as it is on the NHS but this new technique unquestionably leads to healthier children than would otherwise be the case.

Conservatives can safely welcome mitochondrial transplant and maintain a healthy suspicion of technology leading to human cloning and genetic modification of human embryos. We can use it as a reference point too on how society has changed and what steps we can take to ensure society values two parent families.

Dr. Jon Stanley is Health Research Fellow at the Bow Group, a Junior Doctor and a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons