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Controversial in-vitro genetic procedure may get green light in Britain

A controversial procedure to prevent rare genetic defects from being passed on to a baby could soon be permitted in Britain.

The new techniques help women with faulty mitochondria, the energy source in a cell, from passing on defects that can result in such diseases as muscular dystrophy, epilepsy, heart problems and mental retardation.

Scientists take only the healthy genetic material from an egg or embryo. They then transfer that into a donor egg or embryo that still has its healthy mitochondria, but has the rest of its key DNA removed.

"There isn't any treatment, any cure for patients with mitochondrial disease. What we are trying to do is trying to prevent the transmission from mother to child," said Professor Doug Turnbull of Newcastle University.

Nicola Parker, a mitochondrial disease patient herself, said, "You want the best for your child and if they can stop these genetics, like hereditary genetic conditions being passed on, that's all well and good, that's just an excellent thing."

Some groups oppose artificial reproduction techniques and believe the destruction of eggs or embryos to be immoral.

Geneticist Dr. David King said an ethical line was being crossed. 

"Once we cross that line we will inevitably, step by step, slowly, get to that future that everybody wants to avoid, of genetically modified designer babies and a market in children," he said.

British tabloids jumped on the procedure when it was first announced in 2008 and labeled it the creation of a three-parent baby: the mother, the donor, and the father.

That charge, say scientists, is inaccurate because the amount of DNA from the donor egg is insignificant.

"The issue is we're not trying to change how people are, we're not touching the nuclear DNA which comes from both parents, makes us look as we are, act as we are, be as we are, it's about the power supply, the energy for the cell and only that," claims Dr. Sally Davies, Britain's chief medical officer.

Similar research is going on in the United States, where the embryos are not being used to produce children.

If British lawmakers agree, the UK would become the first country in the world where the technique could be used to create babies. Experts say the procedures would likely be only used in about a dozen women every year.

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