January 31, 2012

Nature: UK sets sights on gene therapy in eggs

Britain is one step closer to conducting the first clinical tests of reproductive techniques that combine parents’ genes with DNA from a third party. The approach could spare children from inheriting some rare diseases, including forms of muscular dystrophy and neurodegenerative disorders that affect around 1 in 5,000 people. From Nature:
These conditions are caused by defects in the mitochondria, the ‘power packs’ of the cell, which are inherited from a child’s mother through the egg. Experiments on primates, and with defective human eggs, have already shown that genetic material can be removed from an egg that has faulty mitochondria and transferred to a healthy donor ovum, leaving the flawed mitochondrial DNA behind. In principle, the resulting egg could then develop into a healthy child carrying both the parents’ nuclear genes and mitochondrial DNA from the donor. But the work amounts to genetic modification of embryos — which is currently illegal in the United Kingdom — and also involves destroying fertilized eggs.

On 19 January, the UK government’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) announced a public consultation on the process, the first step towards making it legal. Simultaneously, the country’s biggest biomedical charity, the Wellcome Trust, said that it would fund preclinical experiments to gauge the safety of the techniques. An independent bioethical review is also in progress. “It’s a wonderful example of how regulation should work, because it’s saying let’s see the science, let’s see the bioethics, let’s find out what the public thinks,” says Peter Braude, a reproductive biologist at King’s College London.

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