Singapore Could be the Second Country to Legalise Three Parent IVF, and With a New Method Too

(Credit: Frances Shaw)

 

The first three-parent baby was born back in 2016, causing quite a stir in the media for the following years. If you’re not familiar with what I mean by “three-parent baby”, we’ve summed it up quite nicely here. 

The United Kingdom is the only country so far to legalise the technique known as mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT), in an attempt to prevent children inheriting devastating genetic diseases passed on by their mothers.

Following in the footsteps of the UK, Singapore could become the second country to legalise MRT. But until the members of the Singaporean public report their feedback about the therapy to the Bioethics Advisory Committee (BAC), and the BAC subsequently offers formal recommendations to the government, we can’t say for certain whether the legalisation will take place.

“Our position is to keep a close watch on what happens in the U.K., to track the U.K. experience, and to learn from what they have done,” says Oi Lian Kon, who studies human genetics at the National Cancer Centre Singapore and is leading the BAC review group.

Interestingly, Singapore is considering a new method called polar body transfer (PBT). This differs from the two currently legal in the UK. The method makes use of the polar body that formed when an egg cell divides – this is a super tiny cell which can be placed inside a donor egg, before or after fertilisation.

Polar bodies have very little cytoplasm and contain few, if any, mitochondria, which makes PBT potentially simpler and safer. That the United Kingdom has not approved PBT is “really a matter of timing,” says Andy Greenfield of the Medical Research Council’s Harwell Institute in the United Kingdom, who led the country’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority review of MRT. “The possibility of using PBT came rather too late in the process to permit its smooth introduction into law,” he says.

Although MRT is offering women who are carriers of rare genetic disorders a chance to give birth to healthy babies, only a single country has explicit laws legalising the technique. However, many countries do have more relaxed laws on genetic modification which has allowed three-parent babies to be born in places such as Mexico and Ukraine.

Lift the Ban On Mitochondrial Replacement, Say Experts

In Singapore, MRT is theoretically possible today, says BAC review panel member Tracey Evans Chan, who studies biomedical law and ethics at the National University of Singapore. The country does not allow human germline modification in the clinical setting, but it does—unlike the United States and many European countries—permit genetic tinkering for research purposes, so MRT could be done if it were formally part of a scientific study. “But in order for the therapy to be mainstreamed,” he says, the law needs to change.

Singapore’s BAC has held two public dialogue sessions in the past month; they are also soliciting written feedback. “The most common concern expressed among the lay public whom we have consulted is the issue of self-identity and the fact that children who are born from such a method would, in theory, have part of the genomes of three individuals,” Kon tells Science.

Nothing is set in stone here but it’s definitely a step in the direction towards the adoption of MRT into the clinic.