Even Lord Winston has seemed confused about mitochondrial transfer

News & Analysis

4th February 2015

One expert who sounded off to great effect in the run-up to yesterday’s vote on three parent babies was Robert Winston, IVF supremo and baby maker in chief. He declared in the Telegraph that the donation of mitochondrial DNA was really no more problematic, morally speaking, than a blood transfusion. Naturally this had an effect on the way the debate was conducted – most MPs were entirely dismissive of the radical character of the bill, allowing for permanent, even if benign, changes to an individual’s genetic legacy, their germ line. (Incidentally, the donation of nuclei to an donor egg is much better researched than the more morally problematic embryo-to-embryo nuclear transfer, so it’s not quite as unambiguously safe as its proponents suggest.)

There wasn’t, as Isabel Hardman pointed out in a post before the vote, much time for considered debate about this fraught and complex subject; 90 minutes, in fact. But those who might be inclined to take Robert Winston as the last word on the subject may like to know that even the great man has had his about-turns on this one. Lots of them. A friend, who takes an interest in his shifting stance, sent me the following:

‘In a debate on 13 February 2013, which you can also watch on YouTube, Prof Lord Robert Winston publicly stated the following regarding proposals for pronuclear transfer and maternal spindle transfer:

“…we know already that even fiddling with the mitochondria may make a massive difference to what happens to the nuclear DNA.  It’s still not clear.  And it’s worth bearing in mind that abnormal children have been born as a result of mitochondrial transfer. This has been completely unpredictable.”’

Last June, the same Lord Winston gave an interview to the Independent. While he said he thought replacing mitochondria was ‘a good thing’ in principal, he nevertheless went on to say the following:

‘The problem is that I don’t believe there has been enough work done to make sure mitochondrial replacement is truly safe. There probably needs to be a great deal more research in as many animal models as possible before it’s done.’

Strikingly, he also said in the same interview that he thought the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) was ‘not regulating the clinical treatments, which is what it should be doing,’ going on to say:

‘I don’t think it is competent.  I think I can say the HFEA has had its day.’

So, for a span of well over a year between February 2013 and June 2014, it seems that Lord Winston had quite a few misgivings both about the safety of the proposed techniques and how they would be regulated.

However, in the Times on 25 August 2014, Lord Winston then accused MPs who had previously secured a debate in which his published views were cited of quoting him out of context and he then said the following:

‘I am perfectly supportive of the regulations and I would vote for them.’

This suggests that Lord Winston either had a change of heart about the regulator that he considered to be incompetent only a couple of months ago, or that he was suddenly persuaded by a host of newly published data (seemingly not publicly available) that ‘a great deal more research in as many animal models as possible‘ was no longer necessary.

However, the views of this eminent communicator seem to have become at least confused. On the one hand, writing for the Telegraph on 2 February 2015, he said ‘transfusing mitochondria is not unlike transfusing red blood cells in a case of severe anaemia.’

However, on 28 July 2014 the same Lord Winston told the Independent:

‘Of course mitochondrial transfer is genetic modification and this modification is handed down the generations. It is totally wrong to compare it with a blood transfusion or a transplant and an honest statement might be more sensible and encourage public trust.’

So, if it was totally wrong to compare the proposed procedures to a blood transfusion, why is Lord Winston now doing so instead of providing what he previously thought would be ‘an honest statement‘?

Perhaps he is just confused. In which case, the rest of us, without his expertise, can be excused for being confused too. That being so, I reckon that the government should have given far more time for the debate, and MPs should have been far more chary about a measure which gives us, with the best of intentions, something quite radical and irreversible: GM babies.