Skip to content

Why mitochondrial donation is not about making ‘designer babies’

A cell with the nucleus and mitochondria labelled (Image credit: Wellcome Images)

A cell with the nucleus and mitochondria labelled (Image credit: Wellcome Images)

The UK Government is considering legalising a specialised form of IVF called mitochondrial donation, which aims to prevent potentially fatal mitochondrial disease. As Parliament prepares to debate the issue on Monday 1 September, Jane Bunce tries to clear up confusion over the science behind the technique ― and explains why it will not lead to creation of “designer babies”.

What is mitochondrial disease?

An estimated one in 6,500 children will develop a serious mitochondrial condition, which is passed down from mother to child. There is no cure and symptoms include seizures, strokes, blindness, deafness, heart and liver failure ― and in serious cases, death at a young age.

The diseases are due to faults in a child’s mitochondria, which are often described as the “battery packs” of our cells. These mitochondria are small structures in human cells that convert the food we eat into energy we need to stay alive. If these mitochondria don’t work correctly, cells don’t have enough energy and the tissues or organs they make up do not function properly. Read more

Behind the picture: Leonard Hill and the divers

Leonard Hill wasn’t the type of researcher to confine his research to the laboratory, as this picture shows. Here Julie Clayton, author of a new history of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, takes a look behind this picture to a man concerned with the health and wellbeing of everyone from slum-dwelling children to parliamentarians.

Leonard Hill with a diver sitting either side

Leonard Hill on a boat during a diving experiment (Image copyright: The Physiological Society, sourced from the Wellcome Library)

 This photo, taken circa 1925, shows Leonard Hill ― mustachioed and dressed somewhat inappropriately for a day on the water ― alongside two of his research subjects.

As well as wearing these cumbersome suits, deep-water divers at the time often suffered the painful and dangerous condition of “the bends” when they ascended too quickly to the surface.

It was physiologist Hill who found that the drop in external pressure during ascent led to the formation of tiny bubbles of nitrogen gas in the blood. He did experiments on frogs to demonstrate that the bubbles dissolve again into the blood stream upon recompression. His work led to recommendations for a slow and steady decompression for divers as a remedy. Read more

Faith and hope: leading malaria research in Africa

Faith Osier

Faith Osier (Image copyright: Duncan Willetts Photography)

It was announced yesterday that Dr Faith Osier, a Kenya-based recipient of an MRC/DFID African Research Leader award and a Wellcome Trust Intermediate Fellowship in Public Health and Tropical Medicine, has won the 2014 Royal Society Pfizer Prize. The prize recognises African scientists making an innovative contribution to biological sciences. We asked her to reflect on what this international recognition means.

Any milestone in your career ― like winning this prize, or the fellowship I received last year from the MRC and the Department for International Development ― makes you stand back and take stock.

For me it’s a cause for celebration and appreciation. It makes me appreciate the community that transformed a little girl growing up in Kenya into an international award-winning scientist. From my parents and grandparents, who had the foresight to send all their girls, as well as boys, to school; to all my teachers, educators and mentors; and the wider community that shaped me ― here’s a toast to you! Read more