Mitochondrial donation legalised in Australia

By Lauren Davis
Thursday, 31 March, 2022

Mitochondrial donation legalised in Australia

The Australian Senate voted last night to allow the passage of Maeve’s Law — a Bill that legalises mitochondrial donation and has been described by Minister for Health and Aged Care Greg Hunt as “globally-leading mitochondrial legislation to give hope to families across Australia”. Passed by 37 votes to 17, without any amendments, the Bill was named after six-year-old Maeve Hood, a young Australian who lives with severe mitochondrial disease.

Mitochondrial disease (mito) is a debilitating genetic disorder that robs the body’s cells of energy, causing multiple organ dysfunction or failure. One Australian baby is born every week who will develop a severely disabling form of mito; most will die in the first five years of life. Furthermore, an estimated one in 200 people, or 120,000 Australians, carry the genetic change that puts them at risk of developing mito, or passing it on to their children. That’s where mitochondrial donation comes in.

Mitochondrial donation can involve taking the nucleus from the egg cell of a mother who has faulty mitochondria and inserting it into a healthy donor egg that has had the nucleus removed. Because the mitochondria in the donor egg contains 0.1% of the DNA of that donor, technically the baby will have DNA from three people — although it is 99.9% from two.

The UK was the first (and until now only) country to make legislative changes to allow mitochondrial donation back in 2015, following 10 years of scientific research, ethical review and consultation. These were endorsed in 2016 by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and the first clinic and patient licences were issued in 2017.

As in the UK, the Australian law does not mean mitochondrial donation will be taking place straight away. As noted by Minister Hunt, when he introduced the Bill to parliament back in March 2021, “what this law does is it will open the way for mitochondrial donation — firstly through clinical trials and then, subject to those being successful, through general clinical practice — to be made available in Australia”.

Professor John Shine, President of the Australian Academy of Science, added that the legislation allows important research to proceed while providing an appropriate regulatory environment with necessary safeguards.

“There are two important considerations relevant to the implementation of mitochondrial donation,” Prof Shine said.

“Firstly, the administrative and operational arrangements should allow for equity of access for all Australians whose children run the risk of inheriting mitochondrial disease.

“Secondly, the assisted reproductive technology service providers should ensure there is sufficient mitochondrial donation expertise available to ensure the highest quality advice and counselling is available to families seeking access to the technology.”

Image credit: © Goddard

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