In a 280 to 48 victory, the House of Lords voted to pass a bill that will permit changes in the law to allow mitochondrial donation in the creation of human embryos. The move makes Britain the first country in the world to permit conception through this method, which could prevent incurable genetic diseases.
The vote follows approval by the House of Commons earlier in the month. From autumn, clinics will be allowed to apply for licenses to use the controversial technique. Previously, any alteration of an egg or embryo before it is transferred into a woman had been forbidden under UK law.
Mitochondria are organelles that power the cell, and are passed exclusively down the maternal line, and so any defects to the mother’s mitochondria are certain to be passed down to her children. By swapping the affected mother’s mitochondrial DNA with those from an anonymous female donor, mitochondrial diseases could be prevented. Although the baby would technically have three biological parents, only 0.2% of its DNA comes from the donor and the rest comes from the mother and father as normal.
Around 100 children each year are affected by genetic defects in the mitochondria and in around 10 cases this leads to severe illness such as muscular dystrophy.
Robert Meadowcroft, chief executive of the Muscular Dystrophy UK, said: “This result will be life-changing for many women living with mitochondrial disease, giving them the precious chance to bear unaffected children, removing the condition from a family line and reducing the numbers faced with its devastating effects.”
However, the decision has been met with plenty of opposition. A group of Italian MPs separately tried to convince the House of Lords to vote in opposition of the proposals, claiming that mitochondrial donation could have “uncontrollable and unforeseen consequences” and would inevitably “affect the human species as a whole”.
The Center for Genetics and Society, an advocacy group based in the US, labelled the decision “a historic mistake” that would “turn children into biological experiments and sell wildly exaggerated hope to women already in a challenging position.”
Others accused doctors of meddling with nature. Lord Winston, however, disagreed and maintained that patients’ interests are paramount. “Sometimes we are accused of playing God… We do not try to supplant God. We try to augment his works,” he said.