Mitochondrial DNA Transfer Holds Hope for Women with Genetic Disorders

Britain’s Parliament voted this week to allow strictly limited use of a new fertility treatment that would allow women with a certain type of genetic disorder to become mothers without danger of passing the often life-threatening condition to their offspring.

A human cell consists of two types of DNA—nuclear DNA, which constitutes about 99.9% of cellular DNA, and mitochondrial DNA, which represents only about 0.1% of the DNA contained in a human cell and comes from the mother’s egg. A woman whose mitochondrial DNA is faulty can pass on to her children one of more than 200 genetic diseases, which may manifest in infancy or later in life and are incurable. An estimated one in 4,000 children born in the U.S. is born with some type of mitochondrial disease, according to the Mitochondrial Disease Foundation, as reported by NBC News. Rather than take that chance, many women with mitochondrial conditions opt not to have children.

Developed by UK researchers, the new technique offers those women new hope. The procedure involves removing the flawed mitochondrial DNA and replacing it with healthy mitochondrial DNA from a donor egg. Children conceived via this method have healthy mitochondrial DNA and bear no risk of passing along the disorder to future generations.

Of course, any reference to genetically altered embryos generates lots of publicity and creates controversy. The media quickly latched on to the misnomer “three-parent babies” because the technique uses eggs from two women and sperm from one father. However, as my British colleague, fertility law attorney Natalie Gamble, writes, “Three ‘person’ IVF it may be, but this is not three ‘parent’ IVF; the mitochondrial donor passes none of her genetic traits to the child, just the power to help the cells function normally.”

The other term tossed around in mass media is “designer babies”—the oft-predicted, sci-fi scenario in which advanced genetic engineering technology is used to produce made-to-order babies, with intended parents offered a menu of choices ranging from gender to hair and eye color to mental acuity. That is not what this technology does. The measure passed by Parliament, which must also be approved by the House of Lords, strictly limits the experimental use of the technology only for specific mitochondrial disorders, and even then each clinic must apply and be approved to use the technology on a case-by-case basis. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration held a two-day hearing on the new technology last year and is considering allowing its use, according to a report by Science Magazine.

What mitochondrial transfer technology has the potential to do, someday, is remove a heart-wrenching choice many women with mitochondrial disease are forced to make: to risk passing along a potentially fatal condition to their children and their children’s children, or to give up on the idea of having a genetically related child. Many intended parents with family histories of genetic disease already opt for the use of donated eggs or sperm. This latest development simply offers a more finely tuned option—one that will allow a woman with mitochondrial disorder to have a child who is genetically related to her without fear of causing harm to her child or to future generations.

Rich Vaughn
Richard Vaughn

Attorney Rich Vaughn is founder and principal of International Fertility Law Group, one of the world’s largest and best-known law firms focused exclusively on assisted reproductive technology, or ART, including in vitro fertilization (IVF), surrogacy, sperm donation or egg donation. Rich is co-author of the book “Developing A Successful Assisted Reproduction Technology Law Practice,” American Bar Association Publishing, 2017.

Peiya Wang
Paralegal (律师助理)

Peiya Wang joined IFLG as a paralegal in 2015, where she manages surrogacy, egg donation and parental establishment cases and provides translation services for many of IFLG’s international clients. Peiya received her bachelor’s degree from Beijing Technologies and Business University, where she majored in Marketing. She moved to the United States in 2012 to attend Northeast University in Boston, Massachusetts, receiving a Master of Science degree in Global Studies and International Affairs in 2014. Peiya moved to Los Angeles in 2015 and received her paralegal certification from UCLA Extension. When away from the office, Peiya is a dragon boat paddler and a ballroom dancer, where she favors Rumbas and Cha-chas. She is fluent in Mandarin and English.

Luis Sosa

Luis R. Sosa joined IFLG as a paralegal in 2016, where he enjoys pursuing his passion for family and reproductive law. While working toward his bachelor’s degree at Florida International University, Luis worked as a paralegal and legal assistant for family law litigation firms in Miami and Washington, D.C. As a paralegal and case manager for IFLG, Luis, who is bilingual in English and Spanish, manages surrogacy, egg donation and other reproductive law cases. In addition to spending time with husband Randy and dog Marty, Luis enjoys being outdoors and appreciating the arts.

Toni Hughes

After receiving her B.S. in Business Management, Toni joined IFLG to pursue her dream of working in the legal field. As a Paralegal with over 10 years of experience in the assisted reproduction technology field, Toni is our Managing Paralegal, responsible for training and managing our paralegal staff. From drafting legal documents to assisting our clients with post-birth matters, Toni embraces the challenge of learning something new in this field each day. Besides spending time with her son, Jordan, Toni enjoys exploring new things, cooking, spending time with family and friends, and serving as a Youth Advisor for “Next Generation.”

Miesha Cowart
Financial Coordinator

Miesha Cowart joined IFLG as a financial specialist in 2014 following a successful career in development and business finance. Miesha previously worked for 10 years in the construction industry as a controller and for 13 years as Development Coordinator for the non-profit U.S. Fund for UNICEF. In her free time, Miesha works with “Next Generation” at her church. “They are my heartbeats!” she says of the youth in her community.


Kim has over 25 years of experience in the legal field and has worked exclusively in surrogacy and assisted reproduction law since 1999. Kim is a senior case manager of surrogacy and egg donation cases, and is also responsible for managing parental establishment cases and interacting with IFLG’s Of Counsel attorneys across the country. With three children of her own, Kim understands the importance of family and finds working in this area of law a rewarding experience.

Rich Vaughn

Attorney Rich Vaughn combined his personal passion as a father of twin boys born via assisted reproductive technology (ART) with more than 20 years of experience in business and technology law to build International Fertility Law Group. Today IFLG is one of the most successful and best-known law firms in the world focused exclusively on fertility law, helping thousands of intended parents through empathetic listening, compassionate guidance, and unmatched legal expertise. As an advocate for reproductive freedom, Rich also contributes his knowledge and time to improving the understanding and practice of ART law, most recently as a founder of and speaker at the first Cambridge University International Surrogacy Symposium held in June 2019, as immediate past chair of the American Bar Association ART Committee, and as a popular presenter to law schools, faculty and advocacy organizations all over the world.

Elizabeth Tamayo

Elizabeth received her Bachelors of Science degree in Criminal Justice from California State University of Los Angeles. Shortly after graduating, she continued her education at the University of California, Los Angeles where she obtained her Paralegal certificate. Elizabeth is fluent in Spanish and has been in the legal field since 2009. She is excited to be a part of the IFLG Team helping families realize their dreams.

Sunny Chien

Sunny joined IFLG as a paralegal in 2017, where she manages surrogacy, egg donation and parental establishment cases for many of IFLG’s international clients. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy from California State University of Los Angeles, where she graduated cum laude. Sunny is bilingual in English and Mandarin and has extensive experience as a legal assistant and paralegal at Los Angeles-area law firms. She is excited to be part of the IFLG team. In her spare time, Sunny enjoys spending time with her family and their dog, going to the beach, cooking, and being outdoors.

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Molly O'Brien

Fertility law attorney Molly O’Brien began working in the field of assisted reproduction technology (ART) in 2005, at an egg donation agency and a surrogacy agency where she became familiar with all aspects of in-vitro fertilization, egg donation and the financial aspects of surrogacy. Since becoming an attorney in 2011, Molly has drafted and negotiated surrogacy, egg donation, sperm donation embryo donation agreements for hundreds of her clients all over the world.