Britain's first three-parent babies on are the horizon after Newcastle University was given the green light to carry out IVF using the DNA of two women.
The fertility technique, which was developed by Newcastle scientists, allows doctors to replace an egg’s defective mitochondrial DNA with healthy DNA from a female donor to prevent children suffering debilitating conditions such as muscular dystrophy.
It is controversial because it would result in babies born with the DNA of three people - and effectively, two mothers.
In December the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) said clinics could start applying on a case-by-case basis.
Today the HFEA confirmed that Newcastle had been given a licence to carry out the first procedure, which suggests that women are already lined up to undergo the groundbreaking treatment. If they begin straight away, the first three-parent baby could potentially being born around Christmas 2017.
Newcastle submitted its first application in December and asked for healthy women under 35 years old to consider donating their eggs for the treatment.
The technique involves transplanting nuclear DNA – which contains all the characteristics that make up a person - from a fertilised egg into a donated egg which contains healthy mitochondria, or alternatively removing the damaged DNA from an egg and replacing it with healthy mitochondria.
Mitochondria act as the batteries of the cells giving energy and if they do not work properly it prevents normal development. Scientists believe that it could offer hope for around 150 women a year, a dozens of women are thought to have already expressed interest in the procedure.
Professor Doug Turnbull, Director of the Wellcome Centre for Mitochondrial research at Newcastle University said: “I am delighted for patients as this will allow women with mitochondria DNA mutations the opportunity for more reproductive choice.
“Mitochondria diseases can be devastating for families affected and this is a momentous day for patients who have tirelessly campaigned for this decision.”
The UK is the first country to legalise the procedure, although earlier this year the first baby was born using mitochondrial replacement in Mexico, where there are no laws preventing it.
However critics said the technique was 'dangerous', needless and 'ethically reckless.'
Pro-life charity Life spokesman Mark Bhagwandin said: “We had hoped that the HFEA would have listened to the thousands of people who have expressed concern about three parent embryos.
"Instead it has ignored the alarm bells and approved a procedure which will alter the human genome. It is at the very least reckless and irresponsible given that we have absolutely no idea what the long term consequences are to us interfering with the human genome.
"Whilst we are deeply sympathetic to the plight of people with mitochondrial related diseases, the ends does not always justify the means. Our understandable search for therapies to help overcome illness and disabilities must be done in an ethical way and balanced against the unconditional acceptance of all human beings, whatever differences they may have."
However the science community welcomed the decision.
Prof. Simon Fishel, Managing Director of CARE Fertility, said: “This is excellent news, especially for those patients in the UK who have been waiting this opportunity.
"We know it won't be easy for all concerned as the technology is not straight forward and success will depend upon many factors. But it is indeed a step in the right direction following in-depth debate and consideration of all issues from the medical science to the ethics.
"Regulating this technology via the HFEA and providing the opportunity for couples to deliver children free of this devastating disease here in the UK is a milestone that all who care about medical health will welcome, and we wish the Newcastle team and their patients a very successful programme.”
Sally Cheshire, HFEA Chair, said: “I can confirm today that the HFEA has approved the first application by Newcastle Fertility at Life for the use of mitochondrial donation to treat patients.
“This significant decision represents the culmination of many years hard work by researchers, clinical experts, and regulators, who collectively paved the way for Parliament to change the law in 2015 to permit the use of such techniques.
“Patients will now be able to apply individually to the HFEA to undergo mitochondrial donation treatment at Newcastle, which will be life-changing for them, as they seek to avoid passing on serious genetic diseases to future generations.”