The Australian Senate have passed a Bill, known as ‘Maeve’s law’, that will make it legal for those at risk of passing on a severe mitochondrial disorder to their offspring to avoid this outcome by using assisted reproductive techniques known as ‘mitochondrial donation’.

Mitochondria are tiny organelles located outside of the cell nucleus and have a small number of their own genes which control mitochondrial function. They are often referred to as the ‘powerhouses’ of the cell because they produce the energy that our cells need to work. Mutations in the mitochondrial DNA can lead to serious health problems including heart malfunction, kidney disease, liver disease, stroke, dementia, blindness or deafness and, in the most severe cases, premature death.

Mitochondria are inherited from the mother via her egg. Mitochondrial donation is an assisted reproductive technique involving in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), which involves creating an embryo using the nuclear DNA elements from the prospective parents (sperm and egg) together with mitochondria from a donor. The technique is intended to give families affected by mitochondrial DNA disorders a chance to have children that are genetically related to them but born free of mitochondrial disorders.

Our influential report on the social and ethical issues around techniques for the prevention of mitochondrial DNA disorders, published in 2012, concluded that the techniques would be an ethically acceptable treatment option for affected families, provided that research shows the treatment is likely to be safe and effective, and families are offered full information and support.

Back in 2012, these techniques were in the early research stages and were not permitted for use in treatment in the UK. It wasn’t until 2015 that legislation allowing mitochondrial donation in the UK was approved, and it took another two years before a licence was granted to allow mitochondrial donation to be offered as a treatment option. The UK was the first country in the world to legislate specifically to permit mitochondrial donation and Australia has now become the second.

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Further reading

Read our 2012 report, Novel techniques for the prevention of mitochondrial DNA disorders: an ethical review.