Three-Parent Babies?

Science 2013-07-08

Under new government plans it was announced that Britain would become the first country to allow a new in-vitro fertilization (IVF) process, creating an embryo that consists of DNA from three people. Reports in the media of a so-called ‘3-parent baby’ stirred major controversy. But to what extent are these claims true?


The procedure, pioneered by scientists at Newcastle University, will prevent embryos from developing debilitating diseases, inherited directly through maternal mitochondrial DNA. Using this technique, the fertilized nucleus is transferred to an egg with healthy donor mitochondria, expressing the functional mitochondrial genes. Mitochondrial-related disorders affect 1 in around 6500, and offering this procedure will give women that carry the risk the option to have healthy children.


Going beyond the fact that parenthood means far more than just genes, approximately 25,000 genes come from the genetic material of the nucleus, and about 37 from the mitochondrial donor. Many scientists argue that to suggest that the donor is a parent makes nonsense of the concept of parenthood.


Technicalities aside, there are many pressing ethical issues raised by this procedure, as altering genetic material shapes future generations. Could this be the first step down the ‘slippery slope’? This technology has been mounted as scientists out of control, intervening with natural selection and nature itself. In addition, many believe by crossing this line we move one step towards altering genetic material of the nucleus, and therefore controlling the characteristics of our offspring. Here’s where our overactive imaginations come into action. Behold, in 100 years time a population of blonde-haired, blued eyed designer babies.


The likelihood of this prospect is slim to none. Achieving this development in technology required an Act of Parliament to be passed, and so to go beyond this would require a new law to be created; not so much an easy step down the slippery slope. Fortunately, the UK has stringent regulation of IVF services and is one of the best places for science to move forward. If this procedure had been developed elsewhere, where regulation and genetic counseling is inferior, this may not have been the case.


This is a huge advance in life sciences, which aims to improve the quality and standard of care of life.  For a child facing death in infancy or their teenage years, this is a much bigger issue than a third person donating some cellular material. For women that carry these mutations, it is providing them reproductive choice. Just as the first baby was conceived by IVF, or the first person received a heart transplant, a leap of faith must be made.