In a landmark decision, UK lawmakers voted this week in favor of a law allowing a progressive in vitro fertilization (IVF) technique using DNA from three people. This technique would be used to eliminate mitochondrial diseases in IVF babies, but also raises ethical questions from critics of the process.

healthy babies

According to supporters, the goal is to create healthy babies, not genetically engineered offspring. The process involves using an egg, sperm, and mitochondrial DNA from a third “parent” added for the purpose of avoiding certain genetic diseases passed down through the natural mother.

Mitochondrial diseases are inherited from the mother and nearly always result in death, often in infancy. These disorders lead to health issues such as heart and liver disease, respiratory problems, blindness, and muscular dystrophy. In the UK, one in 6,500 babies born each year has one of these genetic disorders. Researchers estimate that only around 150 babies per year in the UK would be born following this procedure, and close to 800 annually in the United States, should such a technique be approved for use there.

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Estimates put the number of women of childbearing age in the UK at risk of transmitting mitochondrial disease to their children at around 2,500. In the United States, there are over 12,400. With the approval of these so-called “3-parent babies,” those figures could be dramatically reduced within just a few generations. When the healthy women born from this IVF technique grow up and have their own offspring, the healthy mitochondria will be passed on, essentially ending the chain of these types of genetic diseases.

The addition of mitochondrial DNA does not result in any detectable differences in the child, such as hair or eye color. Those features still come from the primary “mom” and “dad.” Mitochondria make up about 0.01 percent of a cell’s DNA, and it’s known as the “powerhouse” of the cell. Essentially, it’s a component that can be swapped out from a healthy “donor” without changing the form or function of the machine.

Under the law in question, the female donor of the mitochondrial cells will be akin to a blood donor, and will not have any of the legal rights bestowed on a parent or guardian. The measure was passed in the House of Commons, 382 to 128, and now awaits a vote in the House of Lords before it becomes law. If it passes, the UK would be the first nation to do so.

Via BBC News

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