Babies made by cloning techniques from the DNA of two women could be born within 10 years as ministers prepare to give the green light for embryos produced by biological material from three "parents". A new law, to be debated in the House of Commons tomorrow, opens the door for such hybrid eggs to be implanted in women.
The novel procedure is designed to find a cure for mitochondrial disease, a range of life-threatening conditions that affect one in 10,000 people.
The development has delighted scientists who say it will usher in a new wave of groundbreaking genetic research that could prevent thousands of children from being born with debilitating diseases.
But Christian groups and campaigners concerned about developments in human genetics have reacted with horror at what they see as the beginning of human cloning and the approval of "Frankenstein science".
Parliament is expected to split over a clause in the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill. Many MPs say the clause will open the door for a new generation of life-saving research to combat mitochondrial disease which can lead to epilepsy, diabetes and fatal damage to vital organs. Nevertheless, any move to allow the creation of a child with the technique will almost certainly spark a row in the House of Commons and protests outside.
The controversial clause will permit embryos to be created from the nucleus of a woman's egg, her partner's sperm and another woman's donated mitochondria, which surround the egg's nucleus and are vital for cell growth. The procedure has so far been carried out only in laboratories. Researchers at the North of England Stem Cell Research Centre, Newcastle, who are leaders in the field, believe that within five years the procedure could be used to carry out trials to create babies.
Professor Alison Murdoch, head of the department of reproductive medicine at Newcastle University, said the Bill would take into account anticipated scientific advances in genetics. "The current work involves transplanting the healthy nucleus from a fertilised egg with damaged mitochondria into a donor egg with healthy mitochondria. We continue to investigate whether transplanting the nucleus from an unfertilised 'unhealthy' egg into an egg before fertilisation would be as effective.
"We are not yet at the stage of clinical trials but we would anticipate that in the lifetime of this Bill we would be. It's a cure for mitochondrial diseases we are working on," she said.
MPs and scientists are delighted that the Bill, which will regulate scientific procedures involving embryos, does not outlaw the practice and allows future MPs to vote on it without a new Act being drafted.
Dr Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat science spokesman and a former GP, said: "It would be wrong to outlaw this potential treatment now, since it would be at least 10 years before there is another chance to repeal such a ban. But it undoubtedly raises new and complex issues." The move means that, unlike other genetic breakthroughs, clinical trials would not require a new Bill. The Government could pass a regulation on a simple parliamentary vote.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulates such research, said the new Bill would mean that the law was up to date with scientific developments. "We now need Parliament to provide an updated framework for regulation of the sector to meet the challenges of the years to come," said a spokesman.
Professor Marcus Pembrey of Progress Educational Trust and emeritus professor at University College London, said the Bill offered a potential lifeline to families hit by mitochondrial disease. "The important thing about the Bill is it doesn't close the door for those families with mitochondrial disease. These families suffer more than anyone because all their children are at risk of suffering serious disease. There are thousands who die from this. This is a very politically wise and sensible way of going forward. It is going to give the green light to research."
But opponents say the Bill contradicts a law that banned human cloning in 2001. Andrea Minichiello Williams, public policy director of the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship, said: "It is our concern that this procedure is in effect very close to that involved in human cloning."
That view was shared by Josephine Quintavalle, chair of Comment on Reproductive Ethics. "We fear you could try to cure mitochondrial disease and cause worse diseases. You are not mimicking nature; you are distorting nature."
A Department of Health spokesman said: "In the future, it may be possible to create embryos using an affected woman's egg, her partner's sperm and healthy donated mitochondria. The current legal position is that embryos created by artificial gametes or genetically modified gametes could not be placed in a woman. This prevents reproductive cloning."
Additional reporting by Nina Lakhani
'Caring for the kids is a 24-hour-a-day job. You survive on very little sleep'
Paul and Rachel Preston know better than most how devastating mitochondrial disease can be for a family. Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of their daughter Kirsten's death. She was eight weeks old. They have four other children; three have mitochondrial disease. Looking after their children is a full-time job, without holidays.
Stacey, 13, is severely mentally and physically disabled. She cannot walk but talks a little bit. Kieran, nine, is bedbound but sleeps only when he is sedated. If his mother is not by his side, he becomes frightened and aggressive.
Kieran and Stacey are doubly incontinent and are fed through a tube in their stomachs. Mrs Preston's only "time off" is when Kieran sleeps. Last night she got an hour and a half. Mr Preston said: "You get used to surviving on very little sleep. This is a 24-hours-a-day job. We're never quite sure when one day ends and the next one starts."
Kelly, 19, has a mild version, affecting the development of her body and mind. Stephanie, 16, has not developed any symptoms yet. But she cannot sleep because everybody else is awake at night and left school at 14.
Paul and Rachel found out they are both carriers of faulty mitochondria after Kirsten died. They do not have any symptoms yet, and maybe never will, but many adult carriers do not develop problems until they reach 40. They are both 38. Mr Preston said: "Every twinge, every ache, we worry it is the big bang. We worry not just for ourselves, but for the children. Kieran and Stacey are completely dependent on us."
After Kirsten died Paul and Rachel were offered the chance of IVF with a donor egg and donor sperm. He said: "We turned the offer the down. I can't really explain it, but we wanted to have our own children. Though if we had been offered this new technique, I'm sure we would have taken it."
The reaction: Do you back the new plans to 'clone' babies?
This should be viewed in the same way as kidney transplants or blood transfusions. Failure to enact the Government's proposal on this would stop the research dead in its tracks – and with it the hopes of the affected families
Professor Marcus Pembrey, Progress Educational Trust
By combining the components of eggs from two women, the defective mitochondria could be eliminated. This procedure is very close to that involved in human cloning. The new Bill might accommodate such developments
Andrea Minichiello Williams, Lawyers' Christian Fellowship
Further browsing: Read the Bill in full at publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200708/ldbills/0068006.i-iv.html
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