Assisted reproduction technique can prevent genetic disease.

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United Kingdom moves forward with controversial embryo technique

The United Kingdom’s first baby resulting from a controversial assisted reproduction technique could be born by early next year. Regulators there have granted the country’s first license for a technique that would allow some women to avoid passing on a type of inherited disease by combining genes from three "parents."

The diseases in question affect mitochondria, which are cellular energy producers that carry their own set of genes. Mutations in those genes can cause a range of symptoms, including brain damage, blindness, seizures, and heart problems. Women who carry the mutations can pass them on to their children. (Although sperm have mitochondria, they typically degrade shortly after fertilization.)

The procedure, called mitochondrial replacement therapy, allows researchers to replace the faulty mitochondria in a woman’s egg cells with those from a healthy donor. Thus, genetic material from two eggs and one sperm is combined to make an embryo. If the baby is a girl, the genetic changes could be inherited. Making heritable genetic changes to eggs and sperm was prohibited in the United Kingdom until Parliament approved a new law allowing the technique in 2015.

In December 2016, the Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority (HFEA) announced that it would be willing to grant a license to use the technique in patients. Today, The Telegraph reported that the agency has granted its first license to  Newcastle University, where researchers have been working on lab-based experiments for years. Patients interested in the technique can now apply to HFEA for permission to be treated at Newcastle. The university has said that a number of families are interested.

At least one baby has already been born after the procedure. Doctors working in Mexico, which does not explicitly regulate the technique, announced in September 2016 that a patient had given birth to a healthy boy