January 17, 2021

The Niche

Trusted stem cell blog & resources

UK Surgeon General Calls My Concerns on 3-person IVF “Bunk”

What is one to do when the equivalent of the Surgeon General of the UK calls one’s concerns about something, in this case 3-person IVF, “bunk”?

It sure gave me some pause. What’s going on?

First, some brief background.

The debate over 3-person IVF/mitochondrial transfer technology has been getting more heated.

The epicenter for the discussion is the UK where the technology is part way through getting Parliamentary approval. In fact, it could be approved by the House of Lords as soon as tomorrow after it was approved by the House of Commons a few weeks back.

The FDA held a committee hearing on this technology in the US a few months ago and it could eventually be approved in the US in say 3-5 years if more data turn out to be more supportive. Very similar to the FDA, my view is also one that we need more data.

If ground zero on this debate is in the UK, why am I as an American scientist involved?

I happen to be one of the few scientific publicly outspoken opponents of approval of this technology for use now. Note again that I could eventually back it in the future, however, if more data supported safety and efficacy. My concerns relate primarily to the risks of creating children with birth defects and human genetic modification (a third person’s mitochondria).

Sally Davies, who has taken a liberal view of 3-person IVF.
Sally Davies, who has taken a liberal view of 3-person IVF.

Even though I’m across the ocean from the UK, my position that we need more time and data and in particular an article in the UK press, which quoted me on my concerns, have ruffled some feathers in the UK

In fact, Professor Dame Sally C. Davies, the UK Chief Medical Officer (roughly the equivalent of the US Surgeon General) went so far as to call my assertion that 3-person IVF could yield children with a higher risk of cancer “bunk” in the House of Lords.

That’s a strong word.

So, again, what to do? This was a few weeks ago.

I decided to write to her indirectly via a letter to Lord Alton, a member of the House of Lords also concerned about approval of this technology. I indicated in the letter why I didn’t think my position was bunk and what were my concerns were on this experimental technology.

Now she has written a letter intending to rebut my concerns again. Lord Earl Howe also signed the letter.

She and I still disagree, which is not unusual in biomedical science, right? For context, as best as I can tell she and I probably agree on 99% of other issues.

I respect her even though we disagree about this one issue. Hopefully that is mutual.

I’m going to write more about the specifics of her most recent letter, which I think is quite surprising in some ways, in a post to come.

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