Intended parents struggling with infertility have a variety of options to consider for expanding their families. IVF is one of those options, but has historically raised a few ethical questions, such as what to do with unused embryos. Now a new area is presenting cause for reflection and consideration – three-parent IVF. Three-parent IVF, which is a developing science that is intended to reduce the risk of passing on mitochondrial diseases and disorders from parent to child, continues to make headway in the Canada, United States, and the United Kingdom. Note: Studies show that about 1 in 6000 people has a mitochondrial disorder.
Dr. Françoise Baylis, a professor in the department of medicine and philosophy at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, explores the concept of three-parent IVF in a study published for Novel Tech Ethics. In her study, Dr. Baylis notes that when the mitochondria inside a cell do not function properly, the potential for neurodegenerative diseases, stroke-like episodes, blindness, muscular dystrophy, diabetes, and deafness increases.
Three-parent IVF involves taking the nucleus from the egg of a woman with a harmful mitochondrial mutation and putting it into the egg of a donor without the mutation. The resulting hybrid egg, containing the nuclear DNA of the intended mother, can then be fertilized and implanted through IVF. When this method of mitochondrial transfer first appeared in the 1990s, researchers were only using a portion of the mitochondria in order to alter the mutation. Now, two research groups in the United States and one in Britain believe they possess enough evidence to support the claim that all of the mitochondria should be used in the hybrid egg, not just a portion.
This past February in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration had a meeting to discuss furthering three-parent IVF research. This meeting was the first time that any governing body discussed the issue of three-parent IVF as a means of preventing mitochondrial diseases. At the conclusion of the meeting, the FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg stated that the agency is willing to continue the discussion of three-parent IVF and the ethics involved before ruling on clinical trials. She continued, “The meeting we held was really one of just beginning a discussion about the research that has been underway and trying to deepen the understanding of what this technique is about.”
As research about three-parent IVF continues, we will undoubtedly see an expansion into the rest of the world. The ability for an intended parent with a known mitochondrial disease to conceive a child without that same disease certainly offers hope to would-be parents. Like other areas of assisted reproduction, legal advice and protections are paramount: Would the egg donor have parental rights, claims, and/or responsibilities? What would intended parents do with unused embryos? Would the egg donor have any legal claim to them? While science continues to evolve and make headway into this area, our legal system will need time to consider how these changes will have an impact on intended parents.