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'Babies with three parents' may only be three years away

Newcastle University announces funding for an embryo research programme, aimed at curing inherited diseases with a third parent.

Amy Huberman, in her comedy 'Threesome': A British university is funding research into embryos using cells from three adult parents - two mothers and one father.
Amy Huberman, in her comedy 'Threesome': A British university is funding research into embryos using cells from three adult parents - two mothers and one father.
Image: Comedy Central UK

A BRITISH UNIVERSITY has announced almost £6 million in funding for a new research programme which may explain how humans can avoid inheriting genetic diseases – by effectively creating embryos with three parents.

Newcastle University’s £5.8m (€7m) programme – which has been mainly funded by the Wellcome Trust, an independent charity – proposes to work on a system which could have groundbreaking implications for many families.

The programme is controversial, however, because it involves transplanting DNA from a child’s biological parents into a healthy donor egg – which, the Daily Telegraph notes, means the resulting embryo will inherit characteristics from all three parties.

The resulting child could therefore claim, with some legitimacy, to have two mothers and one father – although the quantity of genetic make-up inherited from the ‘secondary’ mother, who provides the donor egg, would be relatively small (around 0.2 per cent).

The small genetic overlap has caused some scientists to argue that the children would not truly have ‘three parents’ – but believe the semantic point is relatively unimportant.

One professor told the Financial Times that the child could “not convey any character that could be claimed as mine”, if they were to provide a donor egg for such an experiment.

The research will investigate two ways of preventing the transmission of mitochondrial diseases (that is, diseases caused by the failure of mitochondria, which are the ‘battery’ of a human cell).

One such technique, the FT explains, involves fertilising a mother’s egg with a father’s sperm through IVF, and transplanting its healthy nucleus into another healthy donor egg which has had its own nucleus removed.

The second option would involve transferring non-mitochondrial cells from the mother’s egg into a donor egg, before the IVF actually takes place – with the father’s sperm then fertilising the donor egg rather than the original maternal one.

While the artificial implantation of such eggs into a womb is not permitted under law, the programme hopes to prove that the technique is at least a viable one.

About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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