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Legal challenge over 'hybrid embryo' research

28 November 2008

By Dr Megan Allyse

Appeared in BioNews 486

Two independent pressure groups are claiming that licenses allowing research into the creation of human admixed embryos are unlawful and that research should be halted immediately.

A UK High Court judge heard arguments in London last Wednesday on whether or not to initiate judicial review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority's (HFEA) January 2008 decision to allow two UK research labs, at Kings College, London and the University of Newcastle, to begin research involving the creation of human admixed embryos.

Human admixed embryos, sometimes referred to as human/animal hybrid embryos or cytoplasmic hybrids, are created by placing an adult human cell into an enucleated animal egg and electrically stimulating the egg to begin a process called reprogramming. If the process is successful, the resulting embryo, and any embryonic stem cells subsequently retrieved from it, will be a genetic copy of the original adult cell.

Researchers believe that by creating human admixed embryos using the cells of patients with degenerative diseases and studying the reprogramming process they can gain insight into the mechanisms of disease and potentially develop regenerative treatments.

The Christian Legal Centre and Comment on Reproductive Ethics initiated a legal challenge of the HFEA's decision in April 2008. They claimed that the HFEA had exceeded its jurisdiction in licensing the conduct of human/animal hybrid research because it was only empowered to license research using human embryos. In further arguments made before the court, council for the plaintiffs argued that even if the HFEA had the discretion to license research using non-human embryos, allowing human admixed embryo research would be "irrational."

In response, council for the HFEA told the Court that, according to the opinion of its expert scientific advisors, human admixed embryos are biologically human embryos containing 46 human chromosomes and thus fall under the jurisdiction of the HFEA's licensing committees. In a test case sent to the House of Lords in 2003, the Lords decided that embryos created through the reprogramming of a human egg by a human adult cell were human embryos under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 and should be regulated by the HFEA. The creation of human admixed embryos, says the HFEA, is substantially the same and should be treated the same way.

The creation of human admixed embryos is specifically permitted under the forthcoming Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 2008 but this Act may not come into effect until as late as October 2009. If the Court finds that the HFEA acted improperly in granting the January 2008 licenses all research into the creation of human admixed embryos must halt. Research groups would be able to reapply for new licenses when the 2008 law comes into effect.


Megan Allyse is a Volunteer Writer at BioNews, and a Volunteer at the charity that publishes it, the Progress Educational Trust (PET). She is coauthor of Communicating Biological Sciences: Ethical and Metaphorical Dimensions (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA) and Advances In Tissue Engineering (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA).

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Court hearing over hybrid experimentation
Religious Intelligence | 26 November 2008
 
Embryo research review sought
The Press Association | 26 November 2008
 
BBC News Online | 26 November 2008
 
Christian Today | 26 November 2008
 

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