One embryo, three parents

British researchers have developed a breakthrough technique that could eventually help spare thousands of children each year from some fifty hereditary diseases collectively known as mitochondrial diseases. Currently, there are no treatments available for this type of diseases, many of which are known to cause serious handicaps and even death.

British researchers have developed a breakthrough technique that could eventually help spare thousands of children each year from some fifty hereditary diseases collectively known as mitochondrial diseases. Currently, there are no treatments available for this type of diseases, many of which are known to cause serious handicaps and even death.

Through the intermediary of the egg, mitochondrial diseases are transmitted from a mother to her unborn child. Mitochondria, little “power plants” that generate most of the cell’s energy, carry their own genetic baggage. This baggage is separated from that of the nucleus of the cell, which contains essential genetic information.

In theory, researcher could prevent the transmission of mitochondrial diseases by extracting the nuclear DNA that is formed by the fusion of the egg and the sperm of two parents, and by injecting this DNA in the healthy egg of woman donor. Such an embryo would have all the appearance and genetic character inherited from the parents, but more specifically, a healthy mitochondrial DNA thanks to the “donor egg” provided by a healthy woman.

Experiments with this technique were performed on ten abnormal embryos that were set aside by a fertility clinic. Although all embryos were able to develop normally, they were all destroyed after approximately six days of gestation. The next step would be to allow these embryos to grow beyond six days to see if they are indeed able to develop and become healthy babies. Needless to say, numerous scientific and ethical debates will need to take place before such a procedure can become a common occurrence.

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