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The Many Faces of Lord Winston (on ‘Mitochondrial Donation’)

by Peter D. Williams

One of the people quoted approvingly by those advocating the license of ‘mitochondrial donation’ techniques that would create so-called ‘three-parent embryos’ (on which, see RTL’s briefing here), has been Professor The Lord Winston. His most recent comments to the Daily Telegraph have downplayed the gravity of these procedures, as he said:

“… transfusing mitochondria is not unlike transfusing red blood cells in a case of severe anaemia.”

This is an odd statement to make, however, given the history of his comments on the subject. Indeed, the more remarks of his that one reads, the odder they get.

In an Intelligence Squared debate in February 2013, Lord Winston publicly stated the following regarding precisely the mitochondrial donation proposals – Pronuclear Transfer (PNT) and Maternal Spindle Transfer (MST) – that are currently being debated in Parliament:

“… 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.”

You can watch his comments, here:

Indeed, last June, the same Lord Winston gave a characteristically frank interview to the Independent, in which he admitted that whilst he thought replacing mitochondria was “a good thing” in principle, he nevertheless thought:

“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), the regulatory body responsible for licensing experiments and medical practices on embryonic human beings, was:

“… not regulating the clinical treatments, which is what it should be doing… 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 more than a few misgivings both about the safety of the proposed techniques and how – and by whom – they would be regulated. Yet just two months later, Lord Winston in the Times accused MPs (who had previously secured a debate in which his published views were cited) of “quoting him out of context”, stating:

“I am perfectly supportive of the regulations and I would vote for them.”

This volte-face suggests that Lord Winston either suddenly forgot that he considered the regulators to be incompetent, as he said only a couple of months previously, or else that he was suddenly persuaded by a host of newly published data (though this is seemingly not publicly available) that “a great deal more research in as many animal models as possible” was no longer necessary.

This was all weird enough, but given his most recent comments, the clarity of his views are now even muddier than ever. I’ve already quoted his remarks to the Telegraph comparing PNT and MST to blood transfusion. Yet in July last year, a month before his reversal of position, Lord Winston told the Independent again:

“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 Lord Winston said it was totally wrong to compare the proposed procedures to a blood transfusion, why has he now done so instead of providing what he previously considered would be “an honest statement”?

None of these quotes are taken out of context; it’s simply, genuinely hard to reconcile his apparently fluctuating positions. Given his willingness to talk to the media about these issues, it’s surely more than a little remarkable that such a gifted and experienced communicator should be causing such confusion. Perhaps, one might say, the easiest explanation for such profound inconsistency is that the noble Lord’s mutually incompatible statements might reflect his own lack of clarity about the issues under debate?

If so, then if even Lord Winston himself has not fully understood the nature and impact of mitochondrial donation techniques, it is surely not inappropriate for most Parliamentarians, who haven’t the benefit of his scientific expertise and experience, to have significantly more time than merely an hour-and-a-half on a Tuesday afternoon to debate and consider the matter.