Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has asked the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to assess a controversial new fertility treatment.
The “three-parent IVF” technique pioneered at Newcastle University involves the transfer of human genetic material between two fertilised eggs. It offers couples at risk of passing on serious inherited disorders a way to have a healthy child.
The move by the health secretary could lead to licensing of the technique.
Scientists at Newcastle University announced last year they had perfected a technique that could help couples affected by a group of potentially devastating conditions – known as mitochondrial diseases – to have healthy children.
Mitochondria are found in every cell in the human body and provide the energy cells need to function.
But because mitochondrial DNA is only passed down the female line, and is not present in the nucleus of a fertilised human egg, it is possible to extract the nucleus and transplant it into a second, donor egg. The resulting embryo has the nuclear DNA of the mother and father, but the mitochondrial DNA of the donor. The amount of genetic material contained in mitochondrial DNA is very small – just 13 protein-producing genes compared to the 23,000 genes inherited from parents. But even this limited genetic relationship to a “third parent” has raised ethical concerns.
However, Mr Lansley has taken the first step towards licensing the technique by asking the fertility regulator to assess its safety and effectiveness.
A panel of experts will submit a report to the Department of Health by the middle of April.