The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has created an international panel of experts in the field of assisted reproduction and human embryo research. The new HFEA Horizon Scanning Expert Panel (HHSEP) is charged with keeping the HFEA 'ahead of the fast pace of scientific change'. According to an HFEA press release, the HHSEP will primarily be used to inform the policy development and decision making of the HFEA by 'providing an expert assessment of upcoming scientific and technical developments' and 'identifying priority areas for further scrutiny'.
The members of the HHSEP include reproductive medicine specialists from the US and Belgium, stem cell experts from the UK, Australia and Japan and other leading figures from the worlds of developmental genetics, cryopreservation and cloning. The full list of members can be viewed in the press release (see link below). The panel will be supported by the HFEA's own policy team, which will monitor scientific developments and identify upcoming issues. The panel's work will also feed into the HFEA's broader policy development and consultation work for the new year. This includes a public consultation on the 'welfare of the child' provision in the 1990 HFE Act, following up the sperm, egg and embryo donation consultation, which ends in February, and developing a seventh edition of the Code of Practice.
Suzi Leather, chair of the HFEA, said that the HFEA has 'a number of initiatives to track and predict the scientific environment from current developments to trying to build a picture of what will be happening in five to ten years time'. She added that the 'horizon scanning' work will enable the HFEA to 'strengthen the decisions we make by providing a broader scientific picture on which we can explore the ethical and regulatory implications'. She continued: 'The panel's deliberations will also help inform parliament in its work to revise the HFE Act'.
Following the HFEA's announcement, criticisms of the authority have come from religious leaders, adding to comments made last week by Professor Lord Robert Winston. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, has called for a separate body to debate the ethical issues raised in the area of assisted reproduction and embryo research. He proposes a statutory bioethics committee, similar to ones found in the US and some European countries, to scrutinise developments in the science, saying that the HFEA should be limited to its administrative role. The HFEA is 'not an adequate body' for dealing with the ethical implications of many of the new technologies, he said, adding 'many of the HFEA's rulings are causing deep public disquiet'.