10 April 2007
ByAppeared in BioNews 402
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has challenged the UK Government's decision to propose a ban on the creation of hybrid or chimera embryos, calling such a move 'unnecessary'. In the report, the MPs said: 'We find that the creation of human-animal chimera or hybrid embryos, and specifically cytoplasmic hybrid embryos, is necessary for research'. They expressed concerns that a ban would not only inhibit early research in a potentially benefit-inducing field, but that it would cause UK scientists to move abroad to conduct their research, calling the issue 'a test of the Government's commitment to science'.
As support for the research was expressed by MPs, 223 medical charities and patient organisations delivered a letter to Tony Blair urging him not to prohibit the technique. It is hoped the creation of hybrid embryos may provide a solution to the current egg shortage encumbering UK stem cell researchers, which may be slowing the rate of progress of research into cures and treatments for conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson's and motor neuron disease.
The Government decided to propose legislation to ban the research after a public consultation, criticised as 'deeply flawed' by the Committee, was carried out which revealed opposition - albeit in a largely organised response - to the creation of hybrid embryos. The Government is due to publish a draft bill on the matter next month. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has since received two licence applications for the creation of hybrid embryos for research, but has kept them under review pending the results of its own public consultation on the issue. The Science and Technology Committee expressed dissatisfaction with the hold-up. 'We are critical of the HFEA for delaying assessment of applications for licences to create cytoplasmic hybrid embryos for research', stated the report.
In a response to the Committee's comments, the UK's Royal Society issued a statement in which it said: 'A statutory ban is unnecessary. It would undoubtedly hinder the progress of UK stem cell science and strip the HFEA of a role it was created to provide', continuing 'it is imperative that the development of new scientific techniques is not hampered by heavy-handed legislation'. The Royal Society's comments come as part of a swell of scientific support for the technique emerging as the debate ensues. One of the applicants to the HFEA for a licence to create such embryos, Dr Stephen Minger, commented that, 'this is a way of creating research material we don't have in the areas of catastrophic illness where there is almost no therapy whatsoever'.
Opponents of the new technique have relied on arguments over the intrinsic wrongness of mixing species - even though the resulting embryo would be typically 99.5 per cent human and destroyed after 14 days - and argue the research is not needed. Josephine Quintavalle, director of Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE) said that, 'Despite the enthusiasm of this small committee, worldwide there is more opposition than support for the creation of such entities, and within the United Kingdom as well'.