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By Roger Highfield on

A Remarkable Moment For Science

When the House of Commons voted to legalise a revolutionary new form of reproductive medicine on Tuesday, it was a remarkable moment for science.

When the House of Commons voted to legalise a revolutionary new form of reproductive medicine on Tuesday, it was a remarkable moment for science.

This technique, known as mitochondrial replacement or three-person in vitro fertilization, aims to prevent women passing on harmful mutations in their mitochondria, the cell’s energy-producing structures.

The vote in the House of Commons, decided by 382 members of parliament casting in favour and 128 against, is expected to lead to the United Kingdom becoming a pioneer in mitochondrial replacement methods.

I wrote one of the first newspaper accounts of mitochondrial donation for The Daily Telegraph a decade ago, and also chaired a debate on the technique on Monday night, organised by the Progress Educational Trust in the Houses of Parliament.

The debate was hosted by Luciana Berger, Labour and Cooperative MP for Liverpool Wavertree, and Shadow Minister for Public Health.  Among the audience of around 150 people were MPs, Lords, fertility experts and members of families affected by mitochondrial disease.

After being introduced by Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre, who is also chair of the Progress Educational Trust, I reminded the audience that we were there as an indirect result of events that took place one or two billion years ago: that’s when bacteria invaded the cells of our ancestors to trade chemical energy for a cosy home. 

But, of course, mitochondria can suffer faults and the Commons was about to debate methods designed to prevent children being born with some 50 or so metabolic disorders that result this way. Almost 2,500 women of child-bearing age in the UK are at risk of passing on disease caused by faults in mitochondria to their children.

The speakers debating the safety and ethics on Monday night were: Frances Flinter, Professor of Clinical Genetics at King’s College London; John Harris, Professor of Bioethics and Director of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester; Dr David King, Founder and Director of Human Genetics Alert and Philippa Taylor, Head of Public Policy at the Christian Medical Fellowship, and Consultant on Family and Bioethics at Christian Action Research and Education.

Important contributions to the discussion came from members of affected families, the pioneer of the research, Prof Doug Turnbull of Newcastle University, journalist and author Matt Ridley and Prof Andy Greenfield,  who chaired the HFEA Scientific Review panel.

What was gratifying was that on Tuesday the debate was cited by several MPs – including Luciana Berger, Liz McInnes and Guy Opperman  – in their contributions to the House of Commons debate before the historic vote in favour of this form of gene therapy.

Another MP even complained that we had more time for our public debate than the MPs had for their debate in the Commons.

The science and ethics of mitochondrial donation have been the subject of an exhibit in the Science Museum and years of high-profile discussions, including public consultations by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Department of Health, and representations by scientists and key organisations such as the Wellcome Trust.