Wednesday 13 June 2012
Mitochondrial disease treatment ethically sound
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has published a report investigating the ethical issues surrounding a pioneering treatment for mitochondrial disease (MID). The report concluded that further development of these treatments should take place and, if the development is successful, that using these treatments to stop the inheritance of MID would be an ethical undertaking.
Professors Doug Turnbull and Mary Herbert at Newcastle University have developed a technique called cell battery transplant that involves in vitro fertilisation and allows DNA to be transferred from an egg with damaged mitochondria to a healthy, empty egg. It could be used to prevent women affected by mitochondrial disease passing the condition on to their future children.
The technique has proven successful in the laboratory, but the current law prevents it from being tested in a clinical trial or developed for clinical practice. Under this law, researchers can investigate the technique using eggs and embryos donated to research but are only allowed to keep the embryos alive for up to 14 days. For this technique to be brought into clinical practice, a change in the law is required to allow the resulting embryo to be placed into a woman's womb.
This report commissioned from the Nuffield Council investigates the ethical issues surrounding a change to the law. To investigate these, the Nuffield Council took evidence from nearly 100 individuals and groups including scientists; people affected by mitochondrial disease; and support and campaigning groups. The report examined the science behind the techniques as well as the feasibility and dangers of the techniques and concluded that developing and using a treatment based on these techniques would be ethically safe. As such, the report will form a key part in the process to change the law and in the progress towards a cure for mitochondrial diseases.
The Muscular Dystrophy Campaign has spearheaded the development of this technique by providing over £500,000 towards the preclinical research into this technology over the last 10 years. Due to the success of this research, the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council have announced an investment of £5.8million into a new centre for mitochondrial diseases to take the technique to the next stage and to explore its full potential as a treatment.
Dr Marita Pohlschmidt, Director of Research at the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, said:
Mitochondrial disease may manifest at any age and leaves many facing the gradual loss of mobility, sight, energy, independence and ultimately, their quality of life. It is currently not a disease that can be treated - techniques like this are a vital source of hope for the thousands affected.
On the horizon we have an opportunity to allow women with mitochondrial myopathy to become mothers without facing the agonising possibility of passing their condition on to their child. A baby born using this technique is of its parents. What we are considering here is the donation of cell batteries alone - not of the DNA responsible for defining a person.
The Muscular Dystrophy Campaign welcomes the response by the Nuffield Council for Bioethics on this technique, and hopes that the report will answer many questions for the public. We urge the Government to recognise the human cost of delaying the further development of this treatment, and to act swiftly to allow it to progress.
Further Information and links
Read more about Prof Doug Turnbull's Muscular Dystrophy Campaign-funded research
Find out more about mitochondrial myopathies