19 January 2009
ByAppeared in BioNews 491
A type of controversial admixed embryo research may now grind to a halt due to a lack of funding. Three research groups in the UK have licences to generate 'cytoplasmic hybrid' embryos, but none of them have managed to secure the money they need to proceed.
The embryos are created by transferring the nucleus of a human cell to an animal egg from which the nucleus has been removed, and are considered to be genetically 99.9 per cent human and 0.1 per cent animal. They provide an alternative way of generating embryonic stem cells (ES cells), for which there is a lack of good quality human eggs available for research. ES cells can be used to study a number of diseases such as cancer, Parkinson's and Type 1 diabetes. Carrying out such research requires a licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), and the embryos must be destroyed within 14 days. This type of work has been condemned by several religious leaders. An attempt to ban admixed embryo research was defeated in May 2008, and it was legalised by last year's new Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.
Nonetheless, the research is now languishing due to lack of funds. Dr Lyle Armstrong of Newcastle University has created 278 admixed embryos from human cells and cow eggs, but has no money to use them to generate the ES cells.
The Medical Research Council (MRC) has increased overall stem cell research funding from £23.6m to £25.5m, however a greater proportion is now being funnelled into research in induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) , which are derived from adult skin cells, meaning there is no need to use embryos. iPS cell research was hailed as scientific breakthrough of the year by the US journal Science.
The funding bodies are vehement that they are not opposed to hybrid embryos. Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, chief executive of the MRC, said of admixed embryo research: 'Clearly, we believe there may well be great potential for this avenue of research', but added that 'Fighting for the right to carry out such research does not mean that it should get priority over other applications which score higher and hold more promise'.
However, Dr Stephen Minger of King's College London - another of the current HFEA licence holders for admixed embryo research - is not reassured. 'People reviewing grants may be looking at this from a completely different moral perspective and how much that has influenced people's perception about whether this should be funded, we don't know', he said.