Three-person IVF

The UK government has given the green light to 3-person IVF. We take a look at the technology and implications.
07 July 2013

Interview with 

Nell Barrie


IVF technology


Kat -   And another ruling that's been in the news this month is that the UK government is pushing ahead with plans to allow doctors to create IVF babies with genetic material from 3 people.  But what exactly is the technology about, Nell?

Nell -   So, I think one thing the nerds may have objected to is this kind of term of 3 person IVF because it does make it sound like you're getting genetic material from mum and dad and somebody else, mixing altogether and creating some strange...

Kat -   Franken baby!

Nell -   Yeah, exactly, Franken baby.  And actually, the third person is just supplying the mitochondria.  So, it's the mitochondrial DNA which is in a lot of ways completely different from the normal genetic material that you'd get in a human cell.  So, the mitochondria are there as batteries essentially inside the cell and that was all explained really nicely I thought in a lot of the coverage.  It was, you know, what the mitochondria do, how can mitochondria going wrong cause disease, and we heard about that.  And essentially, this is about replacing faulty mitochondria that have got something wrong in their genetic material with healthy mitochondria from a donor.  The mother and the father's DNA are exactly the same.  They mix together in exactly the same ways they would normally and they get a baby that doesn't have a problem with its mitochondria.

Kat -   So, that's important to make it clear that it's the mum and the dad who want to have a baby, it's their genes.  You're basically using a donor egg to provide the mitochondria that are faulty.  It's relatively rare, the kind of diseases that are caused by these faulty mitochondria, but they're absolutely tragic and do affect families in really devastating ways.  So, I think it's a very brave move.  There is some opposition to it though.

Nell -   Yeah, there is and I was having a raid of different people's opinions on this because I find this type of stuff really fascinating, because it's the power of what science can do now and what people feel about that.  And it's almost, people have this very sort of visceral emotional reaction to this type of advance and there's all this talk of, we're playing God.  We shouldn't be making these decisions, but you're absolutely right.  One of the saddest things that came out for me was that some of these mitochondrial disorders, there isn't even a test for them.  So, you may know that you're at risk because you've had a baby who's died or a child that's affected, you have another child, and you've got no idea until that disease starts to actually show symptoms whether that child has got a problem or not.  So, this must just be really, really tough for parents to go through and they'll sometimes have several children who all die at different stages.  There's literally nothing they can do about this.

Kat -   And that's being the argument on the science side that if we can do this, we should.  And it's not going to be loads and loads of cases.  I think it's going to around five to 10 cases every year once it starts possibly by the end of 2014.  But it's certainly fascinating example of how building on things like IVF technology that started in the '70s, we can actually make real improvements for public health and hopefully, we'll start to see some babies born in the not-too-distant future.  Thanks very for that Nell.  That's Nell Barrie, Science Writer.


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