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U.K. Legalizes Three-Parent In Vitro Fertilization

If it can overcome its idealogical detractors and sensational name, this procedure could strike a serious blow against mitochondrial disease.

Last week, the U.K.’s House of Commons overwhelmingly voted in favor of legalizing three-person in vitro fertilization, a method of conceiving a child that combines the genetic material of three different individuals. This makes the U.K. the first country in the world to approve the controversial procedure, developed to avoid the generational transfer of mitochondrial diseases. While the process would be a literal lifesaver to children whose parents carry these conditions, religious groups fear that three-person IVF is “playing god,” erodes traditional family structure, and could lead to parents creating their own “designer babies.”

The “mighty” mitochondria are organelles that supply energy to the cells of living things (among other important jobs), and their dysfunction can cause a host of debilitating problems and major health issues. Mitochondrial diseases are passed along on the mother’s side, but by employing a third-party donor to replace a part of the maternal egg during fertilization, doctors can leave the damaged genetic material behind, preventing the child from inheriting mitochondrial problems.

Last year, Nina Lary reported for GOOD on the beginning of the three-person IVF debate, and the difficulties faced by children living with these diseases. According to Lary, because mitochondrial diseases are fairly statistically rare, advocates have faced an uphill battle trying to direct awareness, raise research funds, and instigate proactive legislation. “Unfortunately, disease branding is important. It affects everything from awareness to F.D.A. funding,” Cristy Ballens, executive director of MitoAction, a committee of parents, patients, and clinicians told GOOD. “With a rare disease like M.D., you’re explaining what it is all the time. If you always have to explain what something is, we can never move past that.”

Lary’s piece also warns that the terminology around the mitochondrial replacement procedure is misleading, and may be fueling debate around what shouldn’t have to be such a contentious issue:

Though “three-parent I.V.F.” makes for a catchy, provocative moniker, many in the M.D. community (commonly known as the “mito community”) find the term sensationalistic and damaging to both the image they’re building and the true purpose of the technology. “Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy…is preventative in every sense. [It] ensures that disease is not passed from one generation to the next,” says Dr. Phil Yeske, the science and alliance officer for the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation. “I think it’s unfortunate that there’s a bit of a spin.”

But whether based in lurid language, luddite queasiness, or plain old dogma, mitochondrial donation still faces fierce opposition. According to Discover’s coverage of the new U.K. law, “In the closing hours before Tuesday’s vote, church groups in the UK lobbied for parliament to oppose the new law. They oppose the destruction of human embryos, and worry that the law opens a Pandora’s box of genetic tinkering.” While the House of Lords still must ultimately approve the legislation, the law is being hailed as a huge step in addressing a serious group of diseases that has suffered from low public visibility in the past. Hopefully, the U.S., where the procedure is still banned by the FDA, will soon follow suit.

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