Mitochondrial transplant for human embryos

Thursday, 14 February, 2008

Apparently, British scientists have ‘created an embryo from three people’s DNA‘. I’m a bit behind on this story (chronologically, at least), but that shouldn’t matter. (UPDATE – this isn’t actually new. Babies were born with DNA from three people way back in 1998)

Transmission electron microscope image of a thin section cut through an area of mammalian lung tissue. The image shows two mitochondria.Researchers at Newcastle University took the nucleus from a human embryonic cell and transplanted it into an anucleated human cell. This served to swap the mitochondria (and other organelles in the cytoplasm) surrounding the nucleus from those of the mothers, to those of the donor. So, I would call it a mitochondria transplant, and rate it ethically similar to a heart transplant. If your child has a malformed heart, you have a heart transplanted from another person save her life. If you child would have mutated mitochondria (carrying muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, heart disorders or one of many other mitochondria disorders), then why not replace those?

But I guess it must be an ethical problem for some because, technically, a child resulting from this would have DNA from three sources. Nuclear DNA would be a combination from mother and father, and mitochondrial DNA from the donor.

This has obviously caused a reaction, because Prof. Patrick Chinnery, one of the lead researchers, has said:

“Most of the genes that make you who you are are inside the nucleus. We’re not going anywhere near that.”

Personally, I say why not? But that’s not all. Chinnery also tried to distance himself from human genetic engineering by saying:

“We are not trying to alter genes, we’re just trying to swap a small proportion of the bad ones for some good ones.”

Of course, this is entirely genetic engineering. Under the category of ‘swapping bad genes for good ones’ would come transgenic humans (say, swapping human Pseudogene ΨGULO for the active gene found in monkeys, so humans would never get scurvy) or even swapping human chromosomes for entirely synthetic but ‘superior’ models.

Interestingly, the work is technically germline genetic engineering if the child is female. This is because any child born from a mother that has had the ‘mitochondria transplant’ will also have the same mitochondria (mitochondria from the father are found in sperm, and power the sperm all the way to the egg, but don’t actually contribute to fertilisation).

Legal Issues

So, with this in mind, let us look at the legality of the therapy. In Britain, this will be discussed in the House of Commons in March, and I will of course blog about anything interesting to come from that. In Canada, however, Bill C-6 ‘An Act Respecting Assisted Human Reproduction and Related Research‘ , which was actually approved four years ago and is current law in Canada, says the following in Section 5 (‘Prohibited Activities’):

No person shall knowingly for the purpose of creating a human being, create an embryo from a cell or part of a cell taken from an embryo or foetus or transplant an embryo so created into a human being.

So, this research would be illegal in Canada.

In Australian law, under the ‘Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction‘ which I believe is still law (correct me if I’m wrong), under Part 2, Division 1, number 13:

A person commits an offence if:

(a) the person intentionally creates or develops a human embryo by a process of the fertilisation of a human egg by a human sperm outside the body of a woman; and

(b) the human embryo contains genetic material provided by more than 2 persons.

Maximum penalty: Imprisonment for 15 years.

So, certainly appears to be illegal here in Oz to save your child from mitochondrial disorders by ‘swapping’ mitochondrial genetic material.

I won’t look at the US, because reproduction is generally under state jurisdiction there. But I will look at the Council of Europe’s ‘Convention on Human Rights with Regard to Biomedicine‘, which states:

Article 13 – Interventions on the human genome

An intervention seeking to modify the human genome may only be undertaken for preventive, diagnostic or therapeutic purposes and only if its aim is not to introduce any modification in the genome of any descendants.

Which leads to a very interesting conclusion – In European countries that follow this convention, it is only legal to have a son free from mitochondrial disorders, because a daughter could pass on her healthy mitochondria to her children (and we wouldn’t want to ‘endanger human dignity’ or whatever the hell the CoE was thinking then they wrote this law. Time for an update, no?)

So, now I think we can all understand why Prof. Chinnery was trying to dodge the accusation of genetic engineering – because his research is pretty much illegal in most Western nations (and possibly Britain too, depending what the House of Commons thinks).



  1. My son has a rare mitochondrial disease, a form which has a high mortality rate. I have been informed by our genetic specialist that my wife and I have over 50 percent chance of concieving another child with a mitochondrial condition.

    We have choosen not to have anymore children because this disease distroys you as you watch your child suffer.

    The research in the UK offers us hope of having another child free of mitochondrial disease. This is good science providing solutions to changing global requirements. The religious types should get there nose out of science which is improving quality of life for the people of the world.

    God has empowered man to create solutions to mans problems. Problems in many cases created by other mens greed and the toxic chemicals which distroy human and animal DNA and reproductive health. Many of the shareholders of the large chemical companies are in fact the church.

    Why not look at the true cost of genetic disease looking after a person who is less abled for a liftime verses having a healthy child growing to a healthy adult and productive member of our global world. I support science and the future.

    Please keep up the good work, well informed is the only answer

    Jack Dad


  2. hey its an excellent work and i m really pleased to hear that the people are getting cured by the mitochondrial treatment. As its an important organelle in eukaryotic cell such treatments are really efficient. My good oh! sorry best wishes are with all those who are working on this important issue.
    i want to ask a few questions that
    weather mitochondrial engineering is also involved in this treatment?
    is there any relation between mitochondria and aging?
    which plasmid is used for mitochondial engineering?

    • weather mitochondrial engineering is also involved in this treatment?

      The mitochondria were not intentionally modified in this procedure.

      is there any relation between mitochondria and aging?

      It appears so. There is a so-called ‘mitochondrial theory of aging’ based on this evidence. I suggest looking up that term if you wish to learn more.

      which plasmid is used for mitochondial engineering?

      There was no genetic engineering in this procedure, so no plasmids were necessary.

  3. My niece (my sister’s 3rd child) has recently been diagnosed with mitochondrial disorder. She is 3 1/2 years old. They live in Atlanta. Are there any transplants going on there? Is there anything I can do? If I was pregnant, could I help her with mito embryonic donation? Cheryl

  4. My niece (my sister’s 3rd child) has recently been diagnosed with mitochondrial disorder. She is 3 1/2 years old. They live in Atlanta. Are there any transplants going on there?

    I’m sorry to hear about your neice, but I must say I think you misunderstand the nature of this procedure.

    Ooplasmic transfer (aka mitochondrial transplant) is currently performed on single-celled embryos. Your neice is 3.5 years old, so likely has trillions of cells. It is currently not feasible to perform ooplasmic transfer on a grown child. This is more a preventative, allowing a child to be born with healthy mitochondria, rather than a treatment.

    Nonetheless, stem cell treatment of some kind has the possibility to help your neice, but currently such research is quite limited, and I’m not aware of any trials in Georgia.

    If I was pregnant, could I help her with mito embryonic donation?

    Embryonic stem cell research does not involve extracting embryos from pregnant women. Though if you are still ovulating, you may be able to donate eggs for research.

    But you could assist far more by reading up on your neice’s specific mitochondrial disorder (I believe there are many dozen forms), and seeking the advice of medical specialists.

  5. You could do this in Australia, legally, if the father is also the mitochondrial donor.

  6. […] written about mitochondrial transplants for human embryos before (especially how it isn’t new, having been first done in 1998), but it still is getting a lot […]

  7. so this procedure is only for the babies not for adults?

  8. Why people still use to read news papers when in this technological globe the whole thing is presented on net?

  9. hello!,I really like your writing so a lot!

    proportion we keep up a correspondence more approximately your post on AOL?
    I need an expert in this space to resolve my problem.
    Maybe that’s you! Having a look ahead to see you.

  10. […] news article on the mitochondrial transplants I blogged about previously has the headline: “First disease-free babies could be born in three […]

  11. […] some reason, hopefully just safety concerns, it is illegal to implant human-animal cybrids (and human-human cybrids in some countries). The cells were therefore destroyed at the blastocyst (because as you surely […]

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