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Scientists argue for freedom to develop sperm and eggs from stem cells

21 April 2008
Appeared in BioNews 454

An international panel of experts has argued that political 'interference' in scientific research should not be based solely on moral or ethical concerns. The Hinxton Group, a group of 40 scientists, bioethicists, lawyers and regulators formed in 2006 to address reproductive technology and policy concerns, made the recommendations in a report investigating the possibility of creating human sperm and eggs from stem cells.

Last year, UK scientists reported that they had produced early stage sperm from human stem cells in the laboratory. Such cells, known as pluripotent stem cell-derived gametes (PSCDGs), could be made from an individual's reprogrammed skin cells. This would potentially give infertile people the chance to have their own biological children. Although at present unavailable and illegal, an amendment to the UK government's controversial Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill proposed by the Liberal Democrats would make it easier to use such techniques in fertility treatments in future. The Hinxton Group anticipates PSCDGs becoming clinically practicable within five to 15 years.

Hinxton Group members urged policymakers to be flexible in regulating PSCDG development. John Harris, Professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester, said: 'There may be ethical issues at later stages, but at this stage the main ethical issue is to ensure that the science can continue'.

However, Josephine Quintavalle, from Comment on Reproductive Ethics, a campaign group, said the technique went against the natural reproductive process and could result in passing genetic fertility problems on to offspring. Controversy has also arisen over the prospect of gametes generated from same-sex couples being used to produce children, although this is unlikely to be possible.

'The group thought it was going to be very difficult to get eggs from an individual with XY (male) chromosomes and that it would be even more difficult, if not impossible, to get sperm from XX (female)  chromosomes', said Professor Robin Lovell-Badge of the National Institute for Medical Research, London.Instead, PSCDGs are more likely to enable those rendered infertile, for instance by cancer treatments, to reproduce through IVF in future. The Hinxton Group stresses the need for rigorous oversight and safety assurances before such techniques were used in humans. However, its message to politicians is that 'any interference with scientific inquiry should be derived from reasonable concerns about demonstrable risks of harm to persons, societal institutions or society as a whole', and not from 'divergent moral convictions'.

Leading scientists tell politicians to stop interfering over ethics of embryo research
The Independent |  15 April 2008
'Limit' to lab egg and sperm use
BBC News Online |  14 April 2008
Sperm and eggs from stem cells 'in 15 years'
The Times |  15 April 2008
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