Controversial 'three-parent baby' technology carries health risks for males

A human ovum is fertilised using IVF techniques

A newly proposed IVF technique that would remove the chance of passing on an array of genetic diseases between mother and child poses other hidden health dangers, according to a new study involving scientists at the University of Sussex.

Published today (20 September 2013) in Science, the paper emphasises that male babies may be more at risk from the controversial treatment that’s due to be debated by Parliament next year.

Mitochondrial replacement therapy (MR) involves replacing the mother's damaged mitochondria – the part of the human cell generally regarded as its power supply but which may also contain mutated genes  – with that from a healthy donor.

Each year one in 200 children in the UK are born with a mitochondrial mutation and one in 4000 develop  a mitochondrial disease, which range from mild learning difficulties to debilitating conditions such as muscular dystrophy and other life-threatening heart, muscle and brain diseases.

MR would effectively create a baby with DNA from three parents but remove the mother's mutated DNA to prevent the female from passing on these mutations.

The technique is regarded as controversial because it involves  modification of the embryo's DNA. This means that the third party's genetic material will not only be passed on to the child but also to future generations down the female line.

However, scientists at the University of Sheffield, the University of Sussex and Monash University in Australia, compiled evidence that indicates MR can have profound changes in the gene expression of individuals beyond removing the risk of mitochondrial diseases.

A donor's mitochondria may affect a range of important traits such as individual development, cognitive behaviour and key health parameters in the recipient.

University of Sussex evolutionary biologist Dr Ted Morrow says: “The mitochondria contains a tiny amount of genes – fewer than 40 compared with something like 20,000 in the nucleus of the cell.  But what  has not been fully explored yet is how these genes interact.  A mutation in the mitochondria genome may be compensated for in the nuclear genome.

“The problem with taking putative healthy mitochondria from a donor is that this new combination of DNA may end up being the wrong combination, with other problems emerging.”

The researchers say complications occur more often in males because mitochondria are only passed down from mothers, never from fathers. Any negative effects of mitochondria on a male's DNA can, therefore, never be removed by evolution.

If detailed proposals regulating the MR procedure pass a public consultation and are approved by Parliament next year, the world's first three-parent baby could be born in Britain by 2015.

Lead author of the study, Dr Klaus Reinhardt of the University of Sheffield, says: "This technology has the potential to allow affected mothers to have healthy babies. Continuing some of the promising research avenues may be an important step towards the safety of this technology."

Notes for editors

‘Mitochondrial Replacement, Evolution, and the Clinic’ is published in Policy Forum in Science ( on 20 September 2013

The research was conducted by Dr Klaus Reinhardt from the University of Sheffield, and Tuebingen, Dr Ted Morrow from the University of Sussex and Dr Damian Dowling Monash University, Australia.

University of Sussex  Press Office, Jacqui Bealing and Maggie Clune, Te: 01273 678888, Email:


By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Monday, 6 October 2014