UK scientists hoping to use animal eggs in human embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research face a ban on their work, if proposals outlined in a recent White Paper become law. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which regulates all human embryo research carried out in Britain, is due to meet this week to consider applications from two teams who want to use rabbit or cow eggs to overcome the shortage of human eggs for such research. However, following the publication of the White Paper last month, the scientists fear that the authority will bow to Government pressure and refuse to license the work.
The teams, based at King's College London and the University of Newcastle, want to use enucleated animal eggs - those from which nucleus, containing the vast majority of an egg's genetic material, has been removed. A tiny amount of animal DNA remains in the egg, contained within its mitochondria, the sausage-shaped structures that generate a cell's energy. The scientists hope to replace the animal egg cell nucleus with one from a human cell. The resulting embryos would then be grown in the laboratory for a few days and used to obtain stem cells, from which new cell-lines could be created. In this way, they hope to create ES cell-lines from people with serious illnesses, to study how the affected cells develop, test new drug treatments and investigate new cell-based therapies.
Dr Stephen Minger, who heads a team at King's College working on Parkinson's disease and other conditions, said that he had been told the HFEA was unlikely to grant his application. 'The Government appears to have taken a very negative view of human-animal eggs and this seems to have influenced the HFEA decision on whether or not to grant licences', he told the Times newspaper, adding 'it is really short-sighted and I am confused as to how the Government has come to this position'.
Dr Lyle Armstrong, of the University of Newcastle, is leading a team that has submitted a proposal to use animal cells in research into using ES cells to potentially grow replacement tissues for treating conditions such as diabetes and spinal paralysis.
A third team led by Professor Ian Wilmut, of the University of Edinburgh, and Professor Chris Shaw, of King's, wants to use animal cells to create ES cell-lines from patients with motor neurone disease, although it has yet to apply for a licence. Professor Shaw said that to shut such research down is 'a real affront to patients who are desperate for therapy'. He added that 'of all these diseases, none are really treatable. This is a very serious turning point in terms of science and medicine'. Professor Wilmut said that the proposed research was 'all within the current Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. There is no reason to stop it'.
A spokesman for the HFEA said: 'We need to decide whether the law prohibits this research, whether it falls under our remit at all, and then we can look at whether we have a fundamental view on this type of research'. The law currently makes no reference to embryos that contain both animal and human material. However, the White Paper proposes that the creation of 'hybrid and chimera' embryos should not be allowed. But it adds that the new law will contain a power allowing future regulations to set out the circumstances under which such research could be licensed. The proposals follow a review of the current law, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 1990, which included a public consultation.
Dr Jess Buxton is Contributing Editor at BioNews and a Trustee at the charity that publishes it, the Progress Educational Trust (PET). She is co-author of The Rough Guide to Genes and Cloning (buy this book from Amazon UK) and Human Fertilisation and Embryology: Reproducing Regulation (buy this book from Amazon UK).