By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain is considering whether to approve a fertility treatment designed to prevent some incurable inherited diseases under which babies would be conceived from three biological parents.
Health Minister Andrew Lansley asked the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to assess three-parent in vitro fertilisation (IVF) after British researchers said they had mastered the technique using cloning technology.
The method, developed by scientists at Newcastle University, swaps DNA between two fertilized human eggs.
It involves intervening in the fertilisation process to remove malfunctioning mitochondrial DNA, which can lead to a range of conditions including fatal heart problems, liver failure, brain disorders, blindness and muscular weakness.
Mitochondria are the "batteries" of cells. They are inherited only from the mother, which means it is possible to inherit faulty mitochondria. Around one in 6,500 children are born with serious diseases caused by faulty mitochondrial DNA.
The Department of Health said Friday that Lansley wanted the HFEA to coordinate an expert group "to assess the effectiveness and safety" of the technique, which is banned under British law.
"When the group reports back and based on the evidence available, we can decide whether it is the right time to consider making these (new) regulations," a spokeswoman said.
The scientists use a variation of the same technique used to make Dolly the cloned sheep in 1996.
"As doctors we have a duty to treat disease and where possible to prevent disease. With diseases for which there are no treatments the imperative to develop new treatments is even greater," said Alison Murdoch, the head of Newcastle's department of reproductive medicine.
Within a day of uniting egg and sperm using IVF, nuclear DNA is removed from the embryo and implanted into a donor egg, whose own nucleus has been removed and discarded.
The resulting embryo inherits nuclear DNA, or genes, from both its parents, but mitochondrial DNA from a second "mother" who donated the healthy egg. In humans, about 37 genes are found in the mitochondria, while the rest of the more than 20,000 known genes are in the DNA found in the nucleus.
Murdoch said the HFEA review could take up to a year, but it was important to involve lawmakers early.
"We are not ready to do this in patients now but the science is progressing very rapidly," she said in an emailed statement.
"Of course there is no guarantee that we will have all the evidence we need to secure a license in a year but we need to anticipate that we may have and prepare accordingly. "
(Editing by Robert Woodward)