Her Majesty’s Initiative: Innovation for All?

On Monday, the Financial Times published an editorial praising the United Kingdom’s government for its “provisional approval” of a new in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedure aimed at ending rare diseases that occur in mitochondrial DNA.

The UK has showed surprising concern for scientific method and expert opinion as it has considered the novel form of genetic engineering that promises to cure a handful of babies each year of debilitating diseases. In addition, it has displayed foresight in developing regulations for the method before polarizing politicians and mad Members of Parliament attempt to debunk the science with phony arguments and trap innovation in a corner of unwieldy regulations.

Mitochondria are small energy packets within our cells that, when defective, can lead to serious disorders affecting cells that use the most energy: brain, liver, and heart cells among them. One in 6,500 babies is born with a serious mitochondrial disorder for which there currently is no cure. Because mitochondria are only inherited from a mother’s egg, scientists have developed a method of transferring nuclear DNA (a fertilized egg) into a donor egg with healthy mitochondria, leading to a healthy baby.

Human mitochondrial DNA contain a grand total of 37 genes, making up a paltry 0.1 percent of the entire human genome. The claim that babies produced through this novel method are the product of three parents (the “natural” mother and father, plus the donor egg, free of mutated mitochondrial DNA) is farce. Mitochondrial DNA are used for energy production, nothing more.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) of the UK conducted a survey of the public, finding widespread support for the form of genetic engineering. Now, the government, with the continued aid of the Chief Medical Officer, Secretary of State for Health, and the HFEA are set to draft regulations for the IVF procedure to be considered in parliament next year.

“Scientists have developed ground-breaking new procedures which could stop these diseases from being passed on, bringing hope to many families seeking to prevent their future children inheriting them. It’s only right that we look to introduce this life-saving treatment as soon as we can,” Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies said.

Science, regulated by scientists? Sounds dreamy, doesn’t it?

Instead of invoking the precautionary principle, as the European Union has done with genetically modified organisms (as Fran Smith describes here), the UK is letting science guide policy. Instead of prohibiting a genetic engineering procedure that has the potential to save lives, the government has anticipated controversy and public outcry, getting its scientific house in order so it can move forward with common-sense regulation. It has been careful to point out that this is not a step towards a brave new world of “test tube babies,” but a simple, scientifically sound solution that can help eliminate a devastating group of diseases.