Three Person IVF: Disease Management or Designer Babies?

The use of technology to help those wanting to conceive a child is not a new concept.  IVF, in vitro fertilisation, is a phrase that most of us will recognise from the media or perhaps even know someone who has undergone the procedure. Simply put, the procedure involves sperm and ovum (egg) being donated by willing participants,  the sperm penetrates the ovum (fertilisation) in a laboratory environment and the new embryo is planted back into the woman or a surrogate who bares the embryo through a normal pregnancy.

IVF as a theory begun in the 1950s with it only being perfected to be compatible with humans in the 1970s. The first human ‘created’ via IVF was Louise Brown who was born in July 1978 after her parents had volunteered to trial the procedure. Over the decades that followed, IVF has become more common place with over 5 million babies being born worldwide through using the procedure.


Image of the first human fertilised using the IVF technique, Louise Joy Brown, born 25th July 1978 in England. 

Those who use IVF have primarily use it as a way to overcome infertility. Fertility problems from both male and female partners can be overcome using this procedure such as blocked or damaged Fallopian tubes in the uterus as well as low sperm count or damaged sperm motility.

IVF has recently resurfaced in the media here in the UK became the first country in the world to approve the use of Three-Person-IVF. Three-Person-IVF builds upon the IVF procedure described above but is used but is used to overcome genetic mitochondrial diseases instead of simply infertility.

So what on earth are genetic mitochondrial diseases? Let’s start with what are mitochondria? Some readers may be getting flashbacks from school of ‘Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell’. This phrase, in the simplest sense, is correct as mitochondria use glucose to create a molecule called ATP, which the body uses for energy transportation. Mitochondria also differ from other parts of the cell in how they are created. Every other component of human cells are created using a fusion of DNA from the mother and father, however, mitochondria have their own loop of DNA and they are produced using this DNA set.

Image of a mitochondria producing ATP as an portable energy store.

Mitochondrial diseases occur when this DNA goes wrong one of which is Muscular Dystrophy. Here the DNA is mutated in such a way that the mitochondria don’t work as efficiently and less ‘energy’ is produced. One of the first signs of the disorder are weakened muscle, hence it is known as a Mitochondrial Myopathy (‘Myo’ meaning Muscle and ‘Pathy’ meaning Disease).

Three-Person-IVF is used when offspring are of high risk of developing one of these mitochondrial myopathies. There are a number of different ways this IVF can be done but they all follow the same basis. Following normal IVF, as described above, the genetic material of the offspring (i.e. only the DNA) is is taken out of the cell. Here it is moved to a ‘donor cell’ which has healthy mitochondria. The donor cell has it’s own DNA replaced with the new offspring and it grows inside that new cell. This procedure is more commonly known as ‘Mitochondrial Donation’ in the scientific community than Three-Person-IVF.

Image of the first human fertilised by IVF, Louise Joy Brown, born 25th July 1978 in England.

Many fear over different aspects of the procedure with a common fear of the beginning of a slippery slope to designer babies. If the technology allows, people fear of paid scientists ultimately choosing genes to be expressed from a cosmetic point-of-view instead of a health one. However, as things stand now, Three-Person-IVF is not made for this.