BRITAIN could become the first country in the world to permit babies to be born with three genetic parents by the end of next year.
A landmark decision by the Department of Health opens the door to controversial treatments for inherited diseases that make use of donated DNA from a second donor “mother”.
The new techniques help women with faulty mitochondria, the energy source in a cell, from passing on to their babies defects that can result in such diseases as muscular dystrophy, epilepsy, heart problems and mental retardation.
About one in 200 children is born every year in Britain with a mitochondrial disorder.
For a woman with faulty mitochondria, scientists take only the healthy genetic material from her egg or embryo. They then transfer that into a donor egg or embryo that still has its healthy mitochondria but has had the rest of its key DNA removed. The fertilised embryo is then transferred into the womb of the mother.
New regulations to fertility law allowing the procedures will be issued for public consultation later this year and then debated in parliament.
If MPs find them ethically acceptable, the first patients could be treated within months.
It is envisaged that between five and ten “three-parent” babies would be born each year. Allowing the techniques would mark a turning point because it means, for the first time, altering the “germ line” made up of inherited DNA.
Experts point out that only the tiny amount of DNA in a cell’s “battery packs”, the mitochondria, would be changed.
DNA in the nucleus, which determines individual characteristics such as facial features and eye colour, would remain intact.
But some critics believe the move would mark a slippery slope leading to “designer babies” and eugenics.
The Scottish Government confirmed yesterday that the issue is reserved and the decision would affect Scotland.
The aim of the In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) treatments is to stamp out serious mitochondrial diseases which can be passed from a mother to her children.
A recent public consultation found that 56 per cent of those questioned were “very” or “fairly” positive about the treatments. Patient focus group participants were said to be “extremely positive”.
Experts in the field are also behind the procedures, which are being actively developed at a new laboratory in Newcastle funded by the Wellcome Trust.
Draft regulations making the UK the first country in the world to offer the treatments to women with a family history of mitochondrial disease will be published later this year, the Department of Health said.
Chief medical officer for England, Professor Dame Sally Davies, said: “It’s only right that we look to introduce this life-saving treatment as soon as we can.”
She said she felt “very comfortable” about altering mitochondrial DNA.