The UK Government has defeated a bid to prevent the creation of human admixed embryos, after a cross-party attempt to ban the controversial research was lost by 336 votes to 176. The vote followed the debate stage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Amendments to ban the creation of 'true hybrid' embryos containing 50 per cent animal DNA, and to limit the use of hybrid embryos were also defeated.
One type of human admixed embryos (also known as inter-species, hybrid or 'cybrid' embryos) would be created using animal eggs, by removing the animal's genetic material and inserting human nuclei into the egg's cellular shell. The resulting cell would function as a human egg and could be used to create embryos for stem cell derivation. The technique would provide researchers with an alternative source of embryonic stem cells, overcoming the scarcity of human eggs for such research.
Both Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative Party leader David Cameron voted for the research, with Mr Brown terming it an 'inherently moral endeavour', while Catholic Cabinet ministers Ruth Kelly, Des Browne, and Paul Murphy voted for a total ban. Mr Cameron disclosed in an interview that his experience caring for his disabled son had informed his decision, believing it was necessary for scientific research to use hybrid embryos, in an effort to find treatments for congenital illnesses.
MPs were given a free vote on the issue, which crosses traditional party lines. MPs that voted for restrictions on hybrid embryos have done so on ethical or religious grounds. Edward Leigh, a Conservative MP, stated that hybrid embryos were 'ethically wrong and almost certainly medically useless'. Others were worried that the new Bill would lead to a slippery slope, with no telling what scientists would want to create in the future, or have objected that the research debases the ultimate sanctity of human life.
Arguments in support of the Bill focused on the medical good that might come from the research on hybrid embryos, with health minister, Dawn Primarolo, saying that the research offered a 'valuable resource' for scientists. The British Fertility Society welcomed the result, which it said would 'contribute enormously to advances in the new science of regenerative medicine with the capability of improving the understanding of the mechanisms of chronic debilitating disease, as well as the causes of infertility'.
Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, also welcomed the result, commenting that 'the ability for scientists to use human and mixed embryos will help keep the UK at the forefront of international efforts to harness the potential of stem cell research for the benefit of human health'.
The scientific community have emphasised the importance of the research, not only because of its potential to yield understanding of and treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, but also to preserve the UK's standing at the forefront of scientific research. Others have cautioned that treatments may be many years away, and that currently, at best, there are only indications that the research will yield valuable results rather than anything that is remotely ready for therapeutic use.
Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, of the National Institute for Medical Research, was positive about potential developments, stating that 'this understanding will ultimately give us the best chance of developing therapies for these diseases, for infertility, and for a range of other medical conditions'.