The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has launched a public consultation on whether research using human-animal hybrid embryos should be allowed. A public meeting is planned in June, at which interested parties, scientists and members of the public can discuss the issue, and a survey of 2,000 people will also be conducted. Anyone is free to respond to the consultation via the internet. Shirley Harrison, Chair of the HFEA, said: 'The possibility of creating human embryos that contain animal DNA clearly raises key ethical and social questions that we need to take into consideration before deciding whether or not we can permit this type of research'.
Two teams of scientists at Kings College London and the University of Newcastle have already applied to the HFEA for licences to use animal eggs in human embryo stem cell research. If granted permission, the resulting embryos would be only 0.1 per cent animal and 99.9 per cent human. Researchers hope that such research will improve the prospects of new treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer's and motor neuron disease. The HFEA has kept the applications under review pending the results of the consultation.
The Government proposed a ban on the research, after conducting its own public consultation and is due to produce a draft bill shortly. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee early this month attacked the Government's proposals as 'unnecessary' concluding that research on hybrid embryos is needed for scientific progress. At the same time, 223 medical charities and patient organizations delivered a petition to the Prime Minister urging the Government to reconsider the ban.
Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, who opposes all research using embryos, called for more scientific information on the issue. 'It is appropriate the public has a chance to debate the issue, but we need to hear much more about the science and from the scientists who are opposed to it'.
Liberal Democrat MP, Dr Evan Harris, who headed the challenge to the Government's proposals to ban hybrid embryo research, said that 'scientific research should not be subject to referendum'. However, Shirley Harrison, said that the consultation was not intended as such. 'It is important to remember that this is not a referendum with 'votes' counted for or against particular types of research. Instead, we want to understand why people feel worried or enthusiastic about this research in order to help us make a judgment about the best way to proceed'.
The HFEA will deliver a policy decision in September this year after the consultation is completed.