21 May 2007
ByAppeared in BioNews 408
The UK Government has published a draft version of the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. The proposals will amend the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. As it stands, the Bill will ban the creation of embryos that contain genetic material from both animals and humans, but the Department of Health has stated that it wants to make an exception for certain types of research. This includes 'cybrid' animal-human embryos - a proposed technique to create human embryonic stem cells (ES cells) using 'hollowed-out' animal eggs. This represents a shift in the Government's position, following widespread criticism of their previous decision to ban the procedure citing 'public unease'. True 'inter-species' hybrids, those created by the mixing of animal and human gametes, will remain prohibited by the new law.
Cybrid embryo research is the subject of two ongoing applications to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), submitted by scientists at the University of Newcastle and King's College London. Health Minister Caroline Flint indicated the Government was persuaded by arguments from the scientific community. 'We saw this was an area where these could be used for scientific benefit', she said. Dr Stephen Minger, a stem cell scientist from Kings', welcomed the decision, 'This research is important because these stem cell lines could help us to understand what goes wrong in catastrophic neurological disorders like Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease'.
Against the proposals, Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, doubted the scientific gain from such embryos, saying, 'It is appalling that the government has bowed to pressure from the random collection of self-interested scientists and change its prohibitive stance'. 'Endorsement by the UK government will elicit horror in Europe and right across the wider world', she added. The Royal Society cautiously welcomed the proposals, but raised concerns over having to legislate every time technology advances. 'The aim of this revision is to make legislation "fit for the future", but by specifying the types of research that would be allowed under license the Government are imposing a 'shelf-life' on this legislation', it said.
The draft Bill makes other important changes to the HFE Act 1990. In relation to the provision of IVF it removes the current requirement that clinics must consider the 'need for a father' in providing couples with treatment, which has been interpreted by some as excluding lesbians and single-mothers from IVF. The draft Bill also increases the statutory embryo storage period increased from five years to ten years, and has included a one year 'cooling off' period if one of the gamete providers withdraws his or her consent, giving them time to reflect on their decision before the embryo is destroyed.
Also under the proposals, egg and sperm donors will be informed of any children seeking their identity, and donor-conceived children will be permitted to search for siblings once they have attained the age of 18. The draft Bill will permit the use of PGD to select tissue-matched embryos for bone marrow transplantation between siblings. However, using PGD to select for embryos affected by disease (rather than unaffected embryos) will be prohibited, as would non-medical sex-selection. The Bill also includes proposals to merge the HFEA and Human Tissue Authority to reduce costs and streamline decision making.
The draft Bill will now be considered for revision prior to full-Parliamentary scrutiny.