New Centre for Mitochondrial Research at Newcastle University

27 January 2012

The Wellcome Trust has awarded £4.4 million to Newcastle University to establish a world-leading centre dedicated to understanding the biology of mitochondria and their relation to health and disease. Newcastle University has contributed a further £1.4 million for the centre.

The Centre will conduct research that could pave the way for in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment to prevent the hereditary transmission of devastating mitochondrial diseases. The techniques involve transferring nuclear DNA, which contains our genetic make-up, between two human eggs to replace defective mitochondria — they generate the power for the cells in our bodies. When mitochondria fail, patients can develop devastating mitochondrial diseases with symptoms often affecting those tissues most heavily dependent on energy, such as the heart, muscles and brain.

The techniques have been developed in human eggs by Professor Doug Turnbull and Professor Mary Herbert at Newcastle University. Professor Turnbull will be the Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research, where the follow-up work will take place.

Professor Turnbull says: "Every year, we see hundreds of patients whose lives are seriously affected by mitochondrial diseases. We want to make a major difference to the lives of these patients. This new funding will enable us to take forward essential experiments, which we hope will demonstrate to the HFEA and to the public that these techniques, which are based on existing IVF techniques, are safe and effective."

The Centre will bring together ground-breaking laboratory studies to understand the fundamental mechanisms and genetics of mitochondrial dysfunction, and the expertise of clinical researchers who currently care for over 400 patients with mitochondrial diseases at NHS Specialised services clinics in Newcastle and more than 1000 patients at the Newcastle Fertility Centre at Life (Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust).

Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, says: "Professor Turnbull and his colleagues at Newcastle are world leaders in discovering how inherited abnormalities in mitochondria, the 'batteries' of our cells, can cause devastating diseases that typically affect the brain and muscles. We hope that their work at this new Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research will result in major advances in our understanding of mitochondrial function and in the development of new treatments.

"Their work to stop the inheritance of defective mitochondria by transfer of DNA between human eggs is particularly promising and has the potential to prevent previously incurable diseases. We welcome the opportunity to discuss with the public why we believe this technique is essential if we are to give families affected by these diseases the chance to have healthy children, something most of us take for granted."

To ensure continued research in this area, the Centre will nurture the next generation of scientists by developing a new training programme in mitochondrial medicine for outstanding young researchers.

Professor Turnbull and colleagues recognise that their work to prevent mitochondrial disease passing from mother to child involves new and potentially controversial IVF techniques. Therefore, the Centre will also focus on engagement with patients, the general public and policymakers to explain their work.

Professor Turnbull adds: "With this new funding from the Wellcome Trust and Newcastle University, we aim to develop a Centre which integrates internationally renowned basic and clinical researchers and trains the next generation of outstanding scientists. We recognise the importance of public support for our work and so will ensure that we open our research for our patients, the public and policymakers to follow and see what we are trying to achieve."

In the Welcome Trust video below, Professor Turnbull and Professor Murdoch discuss the technique used to transfer genetic material between two fertilised eggs.


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