Why scientists need to step up & engage!

By Siouxsie Wiles 08/02/2015

A few days ago, the UK parliament voted in favour of making Britain the first country in the world to permit IVF babies to be created using biological material from three different people. The vote passed by 382 to 128 – a majority of 254 – and is to amend the UK’s 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act to allow mitochondrial donation. With this technique, to prevent serious genetic diseases, involves using a donor egg which has had its nuclear DNA removed, a woman’s nuclear DNA and then a man’s sperm as normal. You can listen to me talking about this momentous vote with Kathryn Ryan on Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon programme here.

The reason the vote has got some people alarmed is because the donor egg will still contain some genetic material from the donor, in the form of mitochondrial DNA. But it’s a miniscule amount. Almost all of our DNA is found in the nucleus of our cells, apart from a little stretch found in our mitochondria that codes for 37 genes. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of our cells, producing ATP, the energy currency of our body. The mitochondrial DNA (or maternal DNA) is inherited solely from the egg. In ‘3-person IVF’ this DNA will come from the donor egg rather than the mother’s egg.

There are a number of illnesses caused by mutations in mitochondrial DNA, such as Kearns–Sayre syndrome (KSS), which causes a person to lose full function of heart, eye, and muscle movements. The law change will give women who have mitochondrial mutations the opportunity to have healthy, genetically-related children who won’t suffer from the devastating and often fatal consequences of mitochondrial disease.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the technique has been labelled unsafe, unethical and a step towards designer babies by many religious leaders. In an article on the Guardian website, the Wellcome Trust’s Mark Henderson*(@markgfh) says much credit to the successful vote should go to Prof Doug Turnbull who has spent the past decade taking opportunities to discuss his work on mitochondrial donation in the media, at science festivals and with the public, politicians and regulators. And over that decade Prof Turnbull has become a case study in learning to communicate difficult and controversial research successfully. Writes Mark:

“It is my firm belief that not only would MPs not have supported the regulations allowing mitochondrial donation, but that those regulations would never have been laid for a vote at all…..What Turnbull’s evolution over the past decade shows is how important it can be for scientists who are never going to be Brian Cox or Alice Roberts to recognise that taking public engagement seriously is not only the right thing to do, but beneficial to their science. Without it, Newcastle’s mitochondrial research might have been forever confined to the lab, instead of poised to have a direct impact on the lives of families affected by a devastating disease.”

Mark is absolutely right. Here in New Zealand we are fortunate to have the Science Media Centre (SMC) who run a number of workshops to upskill scientists to better communicate with the media. We also have a number of prizes aimed at rewarding those scientists who do step up and communicate, such as the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science Media Communication, and the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Callaghan Medal. Later this month, with the help of the SMC, award-winning writer and broadcaster Alison Ballance and the lovely folk at Mohawk Media, I’m running a workshop to introduce scientists and science communicators to the power of animation to tell science stories. I’m putting my money where my mouth is too – donating $10,000 of my PM’s Prize pot to help some of the ideas on the day turn into animations. Watch this space!

*Writer of the fantastic Geek Manifesto… Check out his great TEDx talk: