RESEARCHERS in the North East have been given a £5.8m boost to fund a new centre to continue their pioneering work that could offer hope of cures to a host of inherited diseases.
Experts at Newcastle University have developed a groundbreaking fertility technique – controversially dubbed three-parent IVF – which allows the successful transfer of DNA between two human eggs.
It is the first time such a system has been used and the landmark project has the potential to help prevent the transmission of serious inherited disorders known as mitochondrial diseases, which affects around one in 5,000 people the UK.
Now scientists in the region have been given millions of pounds for a new research centre at Newcastle University in order to further their work.
However, the techniques being studied at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research are highly controversial, involving the transfer of human DNA, and will need a change of the law to become routine treatments.
The announcement comes as the Department of Health and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills has asked the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to carry out a consultation to seek the public’s opinion about the use of techniques to avoid such diseases.
The HFEA will report the outcomes of this public dialogue work to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, who will then decide whether to draft regulations for consideration by Parliament to allow the techniques to proceed in patients.
The techniques have already been shown to work in the laboratory, but further experiments are needed to assess their safety before they can be used in clinics for patients.
Leading the research is Prof Doug Turnbull, who will be the director of the new centre, and Prof Mary Herbert, an embryologist from Newcastle University.
Newcastle neurologist Prof Turnbull said: “It is a huge boost for the North East in terms of the research and it is great for the university as it cements our position as a world leader in this field.
“It is extremely important that we continue with this research as we want to make a major difference to patients whose lives are seriously affected by mitochondrial diseases.
“The funding we have been given will allow us to take forward experiments which we hope will demonstrate to the HFEA and to the public that these techniques, which are based on existing IVF techniques, are safe and effective.
“This has the possibility, certainly, of stopping these diseases completely – potentially within the next generation.”
A team of scientists will join forces with colleagues at the Newcastle Fertility Centre at Life to work on techniques that could prevent the transmission of mitochondrial diseases from mother to child.
Currently there is no cure for the disorders. While IVF screening can reduce the chances of them being inherited, it cannot remove the risk entirely.
The new techniques to be studied involve transferring nuclear DNA from a mother’s egg to a donor egg containing normal mitochondria. This may be done, via different procedures, either before or after fertilisation.
The mitochondrial transfer involves taking the nucleus of an embryo from a mother with defective DNA and putting it into the egg of a woman with healthy DNA.
This healthy egg is then implanted into the first woman, allowing them to create a baby free of genetic disease.
A child produced this way would have DNA from two women and a man. The nuclear DNA, which influences characteristics such as sex, height and eye colour, would come from the mother and father.
But the child would also have a small amount of mitochondrial DNA from the healthy donor.
Scientists insist it would be wrong to talk of such children having two mothers as it made no impact on a child’s appearance or individual make-up.
Mitochondrial diseases come in a variety of guises. A number cause muscle-wasting conditions while others affect the nerves, eyes and organs.
Britain’s biggest research charity the Wellcome Trust has awarded a £4.4m grant to establish the centre, believed to be the most advanced of its kind in the world. Newcastle University is contributing a further £1.4m.
It will bring together groundbreaking laboratory studies and the expertise of clinical researchers who currently care for more than 400 patients with mitochondrial diseases at NHS specialised services clinics in Newcastle and more than 1,000 patients at the Newcastle Fertility Centre at Life.
To ensure continued research in this area the centre will nurture the next generation of scientists by developing a new training programme in mitochondrial medicine for outstanding young researchers.
Some pro-life campaigners have historically been against the research as they have said it is a step towards creating designer babies.
Prof Turnbull said: “I respect people’s views and we recognise the importance of public support for our work and so will ensure that we open our research for our patients, the public and policymakers to follow and see what we are trying to achieve.”
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‘It is like a ticking time-bomb that could strike at any time’
MUM-of-one Nicola Bardett has a form of mitochondrial disease called MELAS syndrome.
The 33-year-old, of Cramlington, Northumberland, has two aunts and an uncle who have all developed complications and health problems due to mitochondrial defects.
Her mother passed away aged 52 in 2009, after developing symptoms later in life and now Nicola will pass the condition on to her children as it is inherited through the maternal line.
The Human Resources PA, who has a three-year-old son, said: "Although I don’t have any symptoms yet myself, this still has a massive impact on my life and on the lives of everyone in our family. It is like a ticking time-bomb that could strike at any time. We don’t know how my son will be affected, he is symptom free but he could develop problems at any time. It is important that research is done as it would be fantastic if a disease that blights families could be wiped out."
Eggs plea for research
WOMEN in the North East are being encouraged to consider donating their eggs for mitochondrial diseases research.
Despite approximately 100 women already coming forward to support the research, Newcastle fertility experts need more eggs to progress the work into becoming an accepted treatment.
Currently under the egg-sharing scheme women undergoing IVF can receive a reduction in their treatment cost if they donate half their eggs for research – using their remaining eggs for their own IVF.
Now, new permissions have been granted so that women can donate altruistically and receive reimbursement for inconvenience and loss of earnings. Donors will receive £500 compensation.
For more information call 0191 282 5000 or visit the website at http://forms.ncl.ac.uk/view.php?id=2722