ultrasound of embryo

Britain plans to become the world's first country to implant genetically modified embryos. The methods are still in the research phase in both the US and Britain, but the techniques would help families avoid passing down incurable mitochondrial diseases through the maternal line—such as fatal heart problems, brain disorders, muscular dystrophy, and blindness—which affects one in 6,500 children according to NBC News.

The process works by replacing these faulty portions of the DNA with healthy segments from a donor woman, hence the name "three-parent" in vitro fertilization (IVF). Several approaches are being studied. Britain's Newcastle University is studying pronuclear transfer, which swaps DNA between two fertilized human eggs. Another technique being developed is called the maternal spindle transfer, which swaps out the faulty DNA before fertilization. So far, studies have shown that these procedures are likely to be both safe and effective.

However, this kind of genetic intervention raises serious ethical questions. Critics worry that these procedures could pave the way for "designer babies," with genetically modified features like height and eye color. Yet, in a national public consultation, Britons broadly favored the idea, making it likely that the procedures should be allowed to proceed under strict federal regulations.

New guidelines must be created to cover these treatments and are expected to be published later this year. If approved by a vote in Parliament, this would make Britain the first country to offer the option of mitochondrial DNA transfer to it's citizens. Chief medical officer, Sally Davies, hopes the first patients will be able to undergo treatment in the next two years.

Image: Ultrasound of embryo, via Shutterstock