21 January 2008
ByAppeared in BioNews 441
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) License Committee has granted two one-year licenses permitting scientists at Kings College London and Newcastle University to carry out research using human-animal embryos.
Over the past 12 months the HFEA has been deliberating on whether the creation of embryos using human and animal DNA is ethically justified or even legal. This latest decision means that licensed researchers will be allowed to create embryos by injecting human DNA into an animal egg cell from which the nucleus has been removed. The resulting 'cytoplasmic hybrid embryo' would be 99.9 per cent human and 0.1 per cent animal.
Presently scientists studying stem cells - cells which are able to turn into any tissue in the body - have to use human eggs left over from fertility treatment for their research, however these are in short supply and vary in quality. The permission to create hybrid embryos will provide them with a reliable source of stem cells which they can use to carry out vital research into life threatening conditions, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
While scientists in China, US and Canada have already combined human cells with animal eggs, the decision of whether to allow similar research in the UK has caused much controversy.
Anti-abortion and religious groups have campaigned against allowing the research, because they believe it undermines human dignity. John Smeaton, national director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said: 'the deliberate blurring of boundaries between humans and other species is wrong and strikes at the heart of what makes us human'.
The HFEA has specified that licenses to create cystoplasmic hybrid embryos will be granted on a case-by-case basis and has pledged to increase communication between the scientific community and the public, and themselves as regulator in future.
The HFEA's decision has been welcomed by the scientific community, with support from the government's former chief science adviser, Sir David King and from Sir Richard Gardner, chairman of the Royal Society's stem cell working group. 'This is the right decision by the HFEA and it will maintain the UK's position as an innovator and world leader in stem cell research,' said Sir Richard.