Council responds to US National Academies report on mitochondrial transfer techniques

The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have today published a report on the ethical, social and policy considerations for mitochondrial replacement techniques (MRT). The report was written by a committee convened to advise the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on issues relating to the potential clinical use of techniques to avoid mitochondrial DNA disorders. The committee’s report reflects many of the conclusions of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ 2012 report Novel techniques for the prevention of mitochondrial DNA disorders: an ethical review.

Hugh Whittall, Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said:

“Our report concluded that provided that the techniques are shown to be sufficiently safe and effective, and an appropriate level of information and support is offered, it would be morally acceptable for families at risk of passing on severe, inherited mitochondrial disorders to be offered these techniques in treatment. The National Academies’ report echoes this finding, and makes many recommendations similar to those made by the Council, including limiting any initial clinical use to specialist centres and ensuring arrangements are in place for long term follow-up of any children born as a result of these techniques”.

The National Academies’ report also recommends that initial clinical applications of MRTs should only be used to produce male offspring, so that the mitochondria of any resulting child would not be passed on to future generations (since children inherit mitochondria only from the mother via the egg). The Council’s report considered the possibility of restricting the use of MRTs so that only male children would be born, but concluded that the technique should not be used at all until research had shown that it was sufficiently safe and would not pose a significant risk to any offspring or their descendants. This position is now reflected in UK legislation which permits the use of these techniques, subject to regulatory control by the HFEA.

The Academies’ report echoes the Council’s call, in its 2012 report, for further public deliberation regarding the broader issue of treatments that would alter the human germ line. These issues are currently being explored by the Council in its examination of ethical issues raised by new genome editing techniques.

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