MPs' protests fail to derail gene therapy plans

Alex Cunningham

Alex Cunningham

First published in News
Last updated
Darlington and Stockton Times: Photograph of the Author by , Parliamentary Correspondent

PROTESTS by a group of MPs have failed to derail plans for a controversial gene therapy, to stop incurable diseases passing to the next generations.

Ministers vowed to plough ahead with preparations for the DNA-altering procedure, which is being pioneered by a team at Newcastle University.

However, the department of health declined to say when the issue would be put to a vote in Parliament, despite suggestions that it could be before the end of the year.

The treatment involves replacing faulty mitochondria responsible for inherited diseases, including muscle wasting, heart problems, vision loss, organ failure and epilepsy.

Embryos are given healthy DNA from donor eggs, meaning a baby has the DNA of three people – from two parents, plus less than one per cent from the donor.

Professor Doug Turnbull, who leads the Newcastle team, has urged the Government to draw up legislation as soon as possible, because of the number of patients waiting for treatment.

But, in the Commons, MPs brought forward a motion demanding further research and for new regulations to be delayed “in light of public safety concerns”.

Fiona Bruce, a Conservative backbencher, claimed the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) wanted further research, saying: “This is a case of genetic engineering.

“It is the alteration of a potential human being - the removal of certain genes and their replacement with others, to create children.”

A New York professor of cell biology had described the procedure as “inherently unsafe”, while a second had warned of potentially “devastating problems” later in life.

But North-East MPs urged the department of health to press the accelerator, pointing to calls from the North-East England Stem Cell Institute to act on “cruel” disorders.

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) said: “If we are to avoid this horrific suffering in the future, we need the regulations now to make the necessary progress.”

And Chi Onwurah (Newcastle Central) said: “I am proud that, in my constituency, Newcastle University has pioneered procedures that can prevent the transmission of the genetic mutations that cause those devastating disorders.”

In reply, health minister Jane Ellison denied MPs would be forced to “vote blind”, insisting most people supported such genetic techniques when they were properly explained and regulated.

HFEA had “found no evidence” that they were unsafe, after three reviews, although the Government would continue to consider expert advice.

Mrs Ellison said: “We believe that this is an important scientific advance that holds out great hope for families in this country and around the world.”

However, the minister ducked a question inquiring whether a child would have “a legal right to know the identity of the three or four people who contributed to their creation”.

If legalised, the UK would become the only country in the world to allow children with three people's DNA to be born.

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