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British scientists go abroad over lack of funding for human admixed embryo research

12 October 2009

By Antony Blackburn-Starza

Appeared in BioNews 529

The UK's Independent newspaper has claimed that all research involving 'hybrid' embryos has been refused financial backing from the UK's research councils and has warned that scientists are taking their research abroad.

The newspaper ran a front-page story last week after Professor Justin St John, one of the three scientists who obtained a licence to perform the research from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), announced that he was leaving the UK to take a position at Monash University in Australia. Professor St John has not made known his reasons for leaving his position at Warwick University, only saying in a statement that he was moving to Monash because of its status as a 'world-class university for the study of reproduction.' But some commentators have speculated that his move is evidence of a lack of public funds for the research pushing scientists to take their research abroad.

It is not clear why financial support for 'hybrid' embryo research has been withheld despite legislation to permit the research being passed through Parliament last year. As Colin Miles, of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, explains: 'Having an HFEA licence to conduct a certain type of research does not automatically entitle researchers to funding. They must still compete for funding based on scientific excellence and strategic impact and the potential of the project to add significantly to the body of knowledge in that area.' The Council had refused funding for a previous application. Yet some critics have suspected that personal views about embryo research and the use of animal eggs have influenced the councils. Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, denied that personal opinions towards the research could influence the decision making of funding councils. He explained that the peer-review system in the way decisions are made 'rules out the possibility of a personal moral view influencing the final outcome of a proposal'.

The Independent says that all three of the licensed projects to created 'hybrid' embryos have now been abandoned. When campaigning for Parliament to permit the research, which involves transferring the nucleus of a human cell to an animal egg from which the nucleus has been removed, supporters claimed that such was the importance of research into degenerative conditions like Parkinson's that this outweighed any ethical objections. Religious groups and other opponents to the research argue that the destruction of embryos necessary in the process is wrong and also held moral objections to the use of animal material in the creation of new 'life'. But speaking last week in the Independent, Dr Evan Harris MP, the Liberal Democrat science spokesman, called for more support. 'Animal-human hybrid embryo research needs legal permission, good scientists and more funding,' he wrote, adding: 'The question remains, however, that if we are to save human eggs for fertility treatment, then we have to find efficient ways of using animal eggs (with their nuclear material removed) as a substitute for the use of precious human eggs when making cloned embryos for research purposes in the lab.'

The other scientists to gain a licence from the HFEA included Professor Stephen Minger, then of King's College London, but whose licence has now expired, and Lyle Armstrong from Newcastle University, who successfully created 278 'hybrid' embryos before the project ran out of funds. The paper says that Dr Armstrong now conducts his research in Spain.

SOURCES & REFERENCES

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