The Australian government has launched a community consultation on the controversial topic of mitochondrial donation – or, to use the media terminology, “three-parent babies”. According to Health Minister Greg Hunt: “By harnessing new technologies such as mitochondrial donation, we have the potential to change the lives of parents and their children and reduce the burden of mitochondrial disease for future generations.”

This treatment is currently banned in Australia. Because one of the techniques involves the destruction of early embryos and remains highly controversial in other countries, MPs will have a conscience vote in Parliament. But Prime Minister Scott Morrison says that he is behind it:

I do hope we can go forward here where science allows us to do this. And as you know, I’m a person who has strong religious beliefs as well but it presents no difficulty for me on this issue. And I think the compassionate thing to do here is to find a way where if we can avoid that horrific, horrific suffering then I believe we should.

I participated in the heated debates a few years ago over the legalisation of mitochondrial donation in the United Kingdom. I’m afraid that I cannot agree with Mr Morrison.

I remember the heartache I felt in 2015 after a TV debate during which I met the mother of several children who had died of mitochondrial disease and had been totally convinced by all the hype surrounding the licencing of what the press still refer to as “3 person (or parent) IVF”. When I tried to advise her not to get her hopes too high because many UK cell biologists at the time had reservations about whether the technique would work, she was clearly distraught. 

“How could you say such a thing?” was her response. 

Well, I said it because it the evidence was that it was true. Six years later my view has not changed. I feel for the many families in Australia whose hopes have been raised by the same kind of disingenuous press coverage that paved the way for the UK Bill.

Take this paragraph from The Australian as an example

Mitochondrial donation has been allowed in the United Kingdom since 2015 allowing affected couples to seek IVF treatment to conceive. The first babies were born through the process in 2017.

The average reader will assume that these “first babies” have been born in the UK. The first one was widely predicted in 2017. However, the fact remains to date that no babies at all have yet been born in the UK as a result of this technique since it was licensed there in 2015. In fact, I can only trace reports of three or four verified healthy babies worldwide ever born after being created by this means.

The first one born to a mother at risk of transmitting the disease was born to a Jordanian couple in Mexico, “where there are no rules” as Professor John Zhang pointedly mentioned when heralding his triumphant success there. The second baby born from mitochondrial donation was in the Ukraine and to a mother who did not carry the disease but who used the technique to overcome her infertility.

All the usual misleading mantras trotted out in the UK in 2015 are now appearing in the Australian press.

It’s the battery pack of the cell for the body to function.” Batteries store power. Mitochondria generate it, so installing thousands of new power stations in every cell is the analogy that give the true picture.

“Mitochondrial donation isn’t something that alters the personal characteristic (sic) of a person.” Mitochondrial disease certainly affects their personal characteristics by blighting their lives. Surely the aim of the technique is exactly to change the personal characteristics associated with having the disease?

Proof of principle that the technique can work in exceptional circumstances to enable a handful of apparently healthy children to date across the world is not sufficient reason to raise false hopes for every affected family in Australia.

The vast funding poured into this worldwide over many years has arguably reduced funding for earlier work to find a way to treat the disease.

Furthermore, it is impossible to carry out the transfer of the nucleus from the birth mother’s egg into the enucleated donor egg without also transferring some of the unhealthy mitochondria from the affected mother along with the nucleus. There could possibly be a mismatch of what is called the “haplotype” of the two populations of unhealthy and healthy mitochondria in the newly created egg. It is possible that this will stimulate the small numbers of unhealthy mitochondria to multiply — and thus risk causing the very disease the process is mean to prevent. 

How many Australians lobbying and voting on this new measure will be aware of this?

Not just any donor egg is suitable, either. To avoid haplotype mismatching there will be increased pressure for commercialization of eggs to contend with as well.

Since 2015, genomic editing has rapidly advanced and the chances of finding a true cure for mitochondrial disease by this means are far greater now than when the UK licensed mitochondrial donation. We have no children born yet — let alone proof of their ongoing health. Studies will be necessary for years afterwards to ensure that they remain free of disease.

I have sympathy with Morrison in his desire to find a cure. Who doesn’t?

However, there is a salutary UK precedent for a Prime Minister being misled by scientific hype over genetic advances.

In 2008,  Gordon Brown, when Prime Minister, “strongly defended the medical use of animal-human hybrid embryos” which were then being touted as the only possible way forward for various cures from stem cells. He stated, “The question for me is not whether they should exist, but how their use should be controlled… The scientists I speak to are committed to what they see as an inherently moral endeavour, that can save and improve the lives of thousands and over time, millions.”

Human-animal hybrid embryo research of the kind advocated by Mr Brown has to date led to no established cures for anything in the UK.

Well-meaning promises from scientists are all very well when there is evidence to back them up. Six years or more with no healthy children born in the UK yet, should cause the Australian Parliament to think very carefully before following our lead.

Trevor Stammers

Dr Trevor Stammers is Programme Director in Bioethics and Medical Law at St Mary’s University College, London, UK. He was in practice as a family doctor for 30 years and is the co-author (with Tim Doak)...