Mitochondrial donation law raises ethical, safety concerns

THE Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has asked politicians in the federal parlia­ment to not pass a bill that would allow mitochondrial donation.

A small number of families each year who are aware they carry a risk of passing on mitochondrial disease may wish to use mitochondrial donation.

Mitochondrial donation is a complex medical technique that would transfer an intending mother’s nuclear DNA into a donor egg or a human embryo made using a donor egg, to reduce the chance the intending mother would have a child with mitochondrial disease. The different methods of mitochon­drial donation lead to human embryos being created and destroyed, both for research and for clinical work.

It is vital that we find better ways to help families avoid mitochondrial diseases, or find cures, but it is not clear the proposed law would help and it raises significant ethical issues.

Mitochondrial donation in­creases the risk of a child being born with mitochondrial disease compared to the already legal alternative of IVF with egg do­nation. The Bishops Conference disagrees with the use of IVF with egg donation but notes that this is an option which is already legal and available and has no risk of passing on mitochondrial disease. Genetically modifying the egg or human embryo using mitochondrial donation tech­niques adds further issues of safety and ethics with no benefit to health.

Mitochondrial donation has been legal in the United King­dom for more than five years but there have been no reported live births there, so it is not clear if it is both safe and practical.

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The legislation would open the door in Australia to three ethically contentious practices:

  • The first-time researchers would be allowed to change the human genome, meaning any changes are heritable over generations
  • The first time that human embryos would be created and destroyed purely for research and training, and
  • The first time that a human embryo could be created from the genetic material of three people (three-parent embryos).

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