LONDON — Britain's Newcastle University says its scientists have received a license to create babies using DNA from three people to prevent women from passing on potentially fatal genetic diseases to their children — the first time such approval has been granted.
The license was granted Thursday by the country's fertility regulator, according to the university.
In December, British officials approved the "cautious use" of the techniques, which aim to fix problems linked to mitochondria, the energy-producing structures outside a cell's nucleus. Faulty mitochondria can result in conditions including muscular dystrophy and major organ failure.
"Mitochondria diseases can be devastating for families affected and this is a momentous day for patients," said Doug Turnbull, director of the research at Newcastle University. The university has said it is aiming to treat up to 25 patients a year.
To help women with mitochondria problems from passing them on to their children, scientists remove the nucleus DNA from the egg of a prospective mother and insert it into a donor egg from which the donor DNA has been removed. This can happen before or after fertilization. The resulting embryo ends up with nucleus DNA from its parents but mitochondrial DNA from a donor. The DNA from the donor amounts to less than 1 percent of the resulting embryo's genes.
The license granted to Newcastle University relates only to the clinic's capacity to perform the techniques, Britain's fertility regulator said. The clinic must apply for each individual patient to be treated and no patient application has yet been approved.
Last year, U.S.-based doctors announced they had created the world's first baby using such techniques, after traveling to Mexico to perform the procedure, which has not been approved in the United States. The 36-year-old woman had given birth to two children who died of a rare mitochondrial genetic disease called Leigh syndrome.
Critics have raised concerns about the mitochondrial DNA treatment, saying it will put people at unnecessary risk of an untested procedure. Some say women with faulty mitochondria should choose simply to use egg donors and that using the new techniques will open the door to genetically modified "designer babies."
But Douglas Wallace, a pioneer in the field of mitochondrial DNA who is now at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, has said the advance is positive. In 1988, while at Emory University in Atlanta, he was the first to show that inherited mutations in DNA could cause disease.
Last year, in an interview with the Inquirer, he applauded the treatment of the Leigh syndrome defect. "If they effectively have corrected the genetic defect and the child is going to be normal, I think it would be a great thing," Wallace said.