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Legal challenge over 'hybrid embryo' research

28 November 2008
Appeared in BioNews 486

Two independent pressure groups are claiming that licenses allowing research into the creation of human admixed embryos are unlawful and that research should be halted immediately.

A UK High Court judge heard arguments in London last Wednesday on whether or not to initiate judicial review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority's (HFEA) January 2008 decision to allow two UK research labs, at Kings College, London and the University of Newcastle, to begin research involving the creation of human admixed embryos.

Human admixed embryos, sometimes referred to as human/animal hybrid embryos or cytoplasmic hybrids, are created by placing an adult human cell into an enucleated animal egg and electrically stimulating the egg to begin a process called reprogramming. If the process is successful, the resulting embryo, and any embryonic stem cells subsequently retrieved from it, will be a genetic copy of the original adult cell.

Researchers believe that by creating human admixed embryos using the cells of patients with degenerative diseases and studying the reprogramming process they can gain insight into the mechanisms of disease and potentially develop regenerative treatments.

The Christian Legal Centre and Comment on Reproductive Ethics initiated a legal challenge of the HFEA's decision in April 2008. They claimed that the HFEA had exceeded its jurisdiction in licensing the conduct of human/animal hybrid research because it was only empowered to license research using human embryos. In further arguments made before the court, council for the plaintiffs argued that even if the HFEA had the discretion to license research using non-human embryos, allowing human admixed embryo research would be "irrational."

In response, council for the HFEA told the Court that, according to the opinion of its expert scientific advisors, human admixed embryos are biologically human embryos containing 46 human chromosomes and thus fall under the jurisdiction of the HFEA's licensing committees. In a test case sent to the House of Lords in 2003, the Lords decided that embryos created through the reprogramming of a human egg by a human adult cell were human embryos under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 and should be regulated by the HFEA. The creation of human admixed embryos, says the HFEA, is substantially the same and should be treated the same way.

The creation of human admixed embryos is specifically permitted under the forthcoming Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 2008 but this Act may not come into effect until as late as October 2009. If the Court finds that the HFEA acted improperly in granting the January 2008 licenses all research into the creation of human admixed embryos must halt. Research groups would be able to reapply for new licenses when the 2008 law comes into effect.

Court hearing over hybrid experimentation
Religious Intelligence |  26 November 2008
Embryo research review sought
The Press Association |  26 November 2008
Legal bid over research regulator
BBC News Online |  26 November 2008
Licences to research hybrid embryos 'illegal', say groups
Christian Today |  26 November 2008
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The UK's Academy of Medical Sciences has launches a broad study into the scientific, social, ethical and legal implications of research on animals containing human genetic material. Such animals, mostly mice, are found in labs across the UK and mostly consist of animals into whose DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) single sequences of human genetic code have been inserted. However, with developing stem cell and other technologies, there is a perceived ethical crisis point ahead which t...
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16 December 2008 - by Dr Megan Allyse 
UK-based research into deriving disease-specific stem-cell lines from human admixed embryos has been given leave to continue after a judge denied a request for judicial review of a decision by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to license the project. In January of 2008, the HFEA issued...
7 July 2008 - by Dr Rebecca Robey 
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23 June 2008 - by Dr Charlotte Maden 
The creation of human/animal admixed or 'hybrid' embryos is happening at a rapid rate, according to the experts developing them at Newcastle University, who say that the process is easier than they initially thought. Speaking at the BIO biotechnology conference in San Diego last week, Dr...
27 May 2008 - by Ailsa Stevens 
The creation of human admixed or 'hybrid' embryos - which contain both human and animal material - is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill, and is an issue on which UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown bowed to pressure for a free vote by MPs, following...
27 May 2008 - by Katy Sinclair 
By Katy Sinclair: 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...
7 April 2008 - by Dr Jess Buxton 
Scientists based at the University of Newcastle have announced the successful creation of human hybrid embryos, made by inserting human genetic material into 'hollowed out' cow eggs. Team leader Lyle Armstrong presented the preliminary data at a conference in Israel. The team hopes that such embryos...
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