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Sharpening the cutting edge: additional considerations for the UK debates on embryonic interventions for mitochondrial diseases

Lookup NU author(s): Emerita Professor Erica Haimes, Dr Kenneth Taylor



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


In October 2015 the UK enacted legislation to permit the clinical use of two cutting edge germline-altering, IVF-based embryonic techniques: pronuclear transfer and maternal spindle transfer (PNT and MST). The aim is to use these techniques to prevent the maternal transmission of serious mitochondrial diseases. Major claims have been made about the quality of the debates that preceded this legislation and the significance of those debates for UK decision-making on other biotechnologies, as well as for other countries considering similar legislation. In this article we conduct a systematic analysis of those UK debates and suggest that claims about their quality are over-stated. We identify, and analyse in detail, ten areas where greater clarity, depth and nuance would have produced sharper understandings of the contributions, limitations and wider social impacts of these mitochondrial interventions. We explore the implications of these additional considerations for (i) the protection of all parties involved, should the techniques transfer to clinical applications; (ii) the legitimacy of focussing on short-term gains for individuals over public health considerations, and (iii) the maintenance and improvement of public trust in medical biotechnologies. We conclude that a more measured evaluation of the content and quality of the UK debates is important and timely: such a critique provides a clearer understanding of the possible, but specific, contributions of these interventions, both in the UK and elsewhere; also, these additional insights can now inform the emerging processes of implementation, regulation and practice of mitochondrial interventions.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Haimes E, Taylor K

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Life Sciences, Society and Policy

Year: 2017

Volume: 13

Issue: 1

Online publication date: 13/01/2017

Acceptance date: 22/12/2016

Date deposited: 17/02/2017

ISSN (electronic): 2195-7819

Publisher: Springer Open


DOI: 10.1186/s40504-016-0046-2

PubMed id: 28092013


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