On Thursday, Britain’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) announced that it would begin accepting applications from clinics to perform a controversial procedure that uses the DNA from three parents to yield offspring. The experimental procedure, called mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT), has been used to for women who would otherwise risk passing on genetic disorders to their children. Adam Balen, chairman of the British Fertility Society, hailed the regulator’s move as “a momentous and historic step”, which comes almost two years after a vote in parliament opted to legalize the procedure. Newcastle doctors plan to apply for a license immediately and could begin offering the procedure to patients as soon as spring 2017, which means the first British baby made with the DNA of three parents could be born next year.

Professor of reproductive biology at the Newcastle Fertility Centre, Mary Herbert, told the Guardian “We’re delighted. This is a huge triumph for the research, for the regulatory process in the UK, and most importantly for all the families who are affected. We have everything ready to go.”

She also said specialists at the clinic were prepared to apply for a license for the procedure as soon as the HFEA allowed applications to be uploaded.

Roughly 1 in 10,000 newborns suffer from mitochondrial disorders, many of which prove fatal due to mutations to muscle, heart, brain or other tissue. MRT aims to allow women with such mutations in their mitochondrial DNA to yield healthy offspring. Mitochondria are structures within cells that supply energy to tissue. Children’s mitochondria are inherited only from their mother. The procedure seeks to prevent the passing on of mitochondrial diseases by replacing the faulty mitochondria from the mother’s egg with those from a healthy donor. The child would then inherit the 46 chromosomes that determine the inheritance of appearance and other characteristics from its mother and father, while inheriting healthy mitochondria from a donor.

Some controversy has surrounded approval of the procedure, which has been successfully performed in other parts of the world. For one, studies have suggested that there is a risk that small amounts of mutated DNA remaining in the embryo could bounce back and cause problems. Also, ethical concerns have been raised – the procedure affects all of the cells in an embryo, meaning the eggs or sperm of the child could potentially pass on problematic side effects to their own children.

Director of the Wellcome Centre for Mitochondrial Research at Newcastle University, Doug Turnbull, explained that doctors there planned to select 25 women a year, in order to reduce the risk of passing on genetic disorders. Patients who undergo the procedure will receive counseling and be presented with all family planning options available. Children born using MRT procedures will receive full medical follow ups.

Turnbull said:

“We are delighted by today’s decision as it paves the way to offering mitochondrial donation as part of an NHS-funded package of care for families affected by mitochondrial DNA disease.”

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