15 January 2007
ByAppeared in BioNews 391
The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has announced that it will hold a public consultation on the use of animal eggs in human embryo research. The decision follows a meeting held last week, at which the authority considered applications from two teams who want to use rabbit or cow eggs to generate human embryonic stem cells (ES cells). The HFEA said that after careful consideration, this research would potentially fall under its remit, and would not be prohibited by current legislation. But Chief Executive Angela McNab called for 'a full and proper public debate and consultation' as to whether licences should be granted for these sorts of experiments. She added 'when the consultation has been completed in the Autumn, we will then be in a position to consider individual applications'.
UK law currently makes no reference to embryos that contain both animal and human material. However, a Government White Paper published last month proposes that the creation of 'hybrid and chimera' embryos should not be allowed. But it adds that the new law will contain a power allowing future regulations to set out the circumstances under which such research could be licensed. The proposals follow a review of the current law, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 1990.
Last Wednesday the Times newspaper published a letter signed by 45 scientists, academics and politicians, which expressed support for research involving the mixing of human and animal cells and DNA. They included the leaders of the teams whose applications are currently being considered - Dr Stephen Minger, of King's College London, and Dr Lyle Armstrong, of the University of Newcastle. Commenting on the HFEA's decision, Dr Minger said: 'Although we are naturally disappointed that the HFEA has not recommended that our research applications go to the licensing committee, we are happy with their decision to consult both public and scientific opinion regarding SCNT - (cloning) of human cells using non-human eggs'. He added that 'one good outcome is that the HFEA has not buckled under pressure from the Government on this issue'.
Dr Lyle Armstrong said that 'overall, I think the HFEA announcement is a lot better than it could have been', adding 'they have not supported an outright ban of our work and, moreover, the possibility of a further public consultation exercise gives us the opportunity to explain why the science is so very important for Britain and humanity in general'.
The teams both want to use enucleated animal eggs - those from which the nucleus, containing the vast majority of an egg's genetic material, has been removed. Genetic material from human patients could then be added to these 'hollowed-out' eggs, and the resulting embryos used to create ES cells that are virtually human. The scientists hope that this approach would overcome the lack of human eggs available for such research, which offers hope for understanding and treating many serious illnesses.
Dr Jess Buxton is Contributing Editor at BioNews and a Trustee at the charity that publishes it, the Progress Educational Trust (PET). She is co-author of The Rough Guide to Genes and Cloning (buy this book from Amazon UK) and Human Fertilisation and Embryology: Reproducing Regulation (buy this book from Amazon UK).