About mitochondrial donation

Mitochondrial donation is an assisted reproductive technology which can help some women to avoid transmitting mitochondrial disease to their biological children.

The term collectively refers to a number of specific techniques aimed at ensuring only healthy mitochondria are passed on to an embryo.

Used in conjunction with in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), mitochondrial donation techniques allow an embryo to be created which contains the:

  • nuclear DNA from a man and a woman (the prospective mother)
  • mitochondria in an egg donated by another woman (the mitochondrial donor).

This approach minimises the risk of a prospective mother transmitting mitochondrial disease to her child, where the mother carries mitochondria that mean her child is likely to inherit severe mitochondrial disease.

It cannot, however, be used to cure people with existing mitochondrial disease or to prevent mitochondrial disease caused by mutations in an individual's nuclear DNA.

The mitochondrial donation process

Diagram of the mitochondrial donation process

Based on material provided by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

This diagram is a simplified representation of the mitochondrial donation process.

The shown mitochondrial donation techniques are:

  • maternal spindle transfer (MST)
  • germinal vesicle transfer (GVT)
  • some forms of polar body transfer (PBT)
  • pronuclear transfer (PNT).

The diagram shows the role of the mother (red), father (blue) and donor (green) in the mitochondrial donation process.

On the left side of the diagram, the technique known as pro-nuclear transfer (PNT) is shown. This type of mitochondrial donation involves the fertilisation, using the father's sperm (blue), of an egg from the donor (green), and the fertilisation of an egg from both:

  • the donor (green)
  • the mother (red).

The nuclear material in the mother’s fertilised egg (red) is then transferred to the donor’s fertilised egg (green), which has had its own nuclear material removed. The nuclear material which is transferred to the donor egg includes the mother’s nuclear DNA (red) and the father’s nuclear DNA (blue).

This results in  a fertilised egg (zygote) which contains the nuclear DNA of the mother (red) and father (blue) with healthy mitochondrial DNA from the donor (green). This zygote goes on to develop.

On the right side of the graph, the processes used for maternal spindle transfer (MST), germinal vesicle transfer (GVT) and some types of polar body transfer (PBT) are shown.

These types of mitochondrial donation use an unfertilised egg from both the:

  • mother (red)
  • donor (green).

The mother’s nuclear DNA (red) is transferred to the donor egg (green) which has had its own nuclear DNA removed.

The donor egg is then fertilised with the father’s sperm to form a zygote.

Why it is important

Severe mitochondrial disease can have a devastating effect on families, including:

  • the premature death of children
  • painful debilitating and disabling suffering
  • long-term ill-health
  • poor quality of life.

In Australia, between one in 5,000 and one in 10,000 people are likely to develop severe mitochondrial disease during their lifetime. Approximately one child per week is born with a severe form of the disease.

Introducing mitochondrial donation could prevent some children from suffering from this life-threatening disease and reduce the burden of mitochondrial disease into the future.

What we’re doing about mitochondrial donation

Mitochondrial donation is not currently allowed in Australia. The Australian Government is proposing to introduce mitochondrial donation in a staged and closely monitored way.

The aim is to allow families to access the technique safely, at a carefully selected and regulated clinic. Ongoing research will also be allowed to increase Australian-based knowledge and expertise.

Once the clinic has demonstrated success over a number of years, and the results have been evaluated by experts, there will be an option to allow clinics across Australia to be licensed to offer mitochondrial donation.

Introduction of Maeve's Law

The Mitochondrial Donation Law Reform (Maeve’s Law) Bill was introduced into the Australian Parliament for debate on 24 March 2021.

If passed, it will allow mitochondrial donation to be introduced in Australia, through a staged approach and under strict regulatory conditions, to prevent transmission of severe mitochondrial disease.

Senate inquiry

On 24 June 2021, the Senate referred Maeve’s Law to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee for inquiry and report. They are due to report on 18 August 2021.

Further information is available on the Committee’s website.

Consultation outcomes

A public consultation process on the proposed approach to introducing mitochondrial donation in Australia, ran from 5 February 2021 until 15 March 2021.

Read the summary report.

Learn more

Extensive consultation has previously been done on the ethical, scientific and legal issues associated with mitochondrial donation. Read about the consultation and work undertaken by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) in 2019–20.

You can also read the Australian Government response to the 2018 Senate Community Affairs References Committee Inquiry.

Contact

Mitochondrial donation contact

Contact us if you have questions about mitochondrial donation.

mito [at] health.gov.au

View contact

Last updated: 
16 July 2021