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Legal challenge to hybrid embryo research licences

14 April 2008
Appeared in BioNews 453

Christian groups have instigated a judicial review of the decision by the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to grant licences to create human hybrid embryos for stem cell research.

The Christian Legal Centre (CLC) along with Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core) will argue that the HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority) has overstepped the current legal framework governing research on embryos, the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. The 1990 act gives the HFEA powers to license research involving human embryos, but the CLC argues that these powers do not extend to research involving hybrid embryos.

So far the HFEA has granted licences to Newcastle University and King's College London to create human hybrid embryos. The team from Newcastle University claimed last week that they have already created such an embryo. The procedure involved removing the contents of a cow egg and inserting human DNA in its place.  The resulting embryo is 99.9 per cent genetically human, and can be used to create embryonic stem cells (ES cells), which scientists use to study diseases such as Parkinson's.  It is hoped that the study of ES cells will lead to the development of treatments for many diseases.

The Christian groups object that there is no need to create hybrid embryos to further such research, and that to do so steps outside the realms of the 1990 Act. Andrea Minichiello, director of the CLC, said that the HFEA had 'pre-empted the will of Parliament', as the issue is yet to be debated by MPs as part of the new Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. If passed, the Bill will formalise the legal status of hybrid embryos. The CLC and Core hope that the High Court will judge that the HFEA has overstepped its legal boundaries in issuing licences for research not yet sanctioned in law.

Last year, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee approved of the HFEA's right to grant human hybrid (also called 'cybrid') research licences, having viewed the legal advice provided to the Authority. Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat member of the Committee, said: 'this legal challenge should fail because both the Science and Technology Committee and the HFEA received clear legal advice that cybrid embryos were human embryos for the purpose of the 1990 Act, as all their chromosomal DNA is human, and that such research was permitted under the Act and the 2001 therapeutic cloning regulations'.

The Committee judged that the research was valuable and also solved the problem of insufficient supplies of human eggs for research purposes. The Christian groups disagree, with a spokeswoman from Core commenting that, 'the science itself is nonsensical; unlikely to work and unlikely to provide any useful information for anybody, let alone any therapies. These licences should not have been granted'. The HFEA will have its decision to grant licences overturned if the High Court deems the interpretation of hybrid embryos as human to be 'irrational, unreasonable or unlawful'.

Meanwhile, a new poll carried out for the Times newspaper has found that 50 per cent of respondents were in favour of human hybrid research, while 30 per cent opposed it. The survey, which questioned 1502 adults between 4 and 6 April, also canvassed opinion on  the proposed removal of the legal requirement for IVF clinics to consider the child's 'need for a father' - see 'Recommends' for details.

Campaigners against human embryo research launch legal challenge
The Telegraph |  8 April 2008
Christian group mounts challenge to HFEA on hybrid embryo research
The Times |  8 April 2008
Christian groups challenge hybrid embryos go-ahead
The Guardian |  9 April 2008
Legal challenge to hybrid embryos
BBC News Online |  9 April 2008
1 September 2008 - by Ailsa Stevens 
Representatives of different faiths frequently intervene in debates around fertility and assisted reproduction, with religious perspectives cited in recent months both in support of and in opposition to the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill. Last Easter, the government's proposal to allow research using inter-species human or 'admixed' embryos...
28 April 2008 - by Fiona Fox 
Should scientists enter the media fray on the most controversial aspects of stem cell research when the row is clearly about much more than the science? This is a question that many in the scientific community have raised over the past year in relation to the furore over human-animal hybrid...
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