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Patients want 'hybrid' embryo research to go ahead

15 January 2007
By Nick Meade
Policy Officer, Genetic Interest Group (GIG): the UK alliance of over 140 charities and support groups for individuals, children and families affected by all types of genetic disorder.
Appeared in BioNews 391
The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has announced a public consultation on the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos. Scientists want to use such embryos to create genetically human embryonic stem cells (ES cells). This method would overcome difficulties associated with the collection of human eggs from donors, and would provide a much more fruitful source of embryos for scientists.

The human-animal hybrid embryo is formed from an animal egg cell (most likely from cows or rabbits). This egg cell's nuclear DNA is removed and replaced with nuclear DNA from an adult human. The cell is then 'kick-started' - with a small electric shock - into commencing cell division. Under current UK laws, this embryo is allowed to be kept in the laboratory for fourteen days, after which it must be destroyed. A fourteen day old embryo bears no resemblance to any animal, it is no more than a ball of cells: a blastocyst, and should not be confused with a fetus. The embryo would be almost 100 per cent human - the only non-human DNA in the cell comes as part of the cell's mitochondria: apparatus for providing the cell with energy.

If the HFEA reaches the conclusion, post consultation, that this practice should not be licensed, the only remaining method for creating ES cells genetically matched to patients will be through using eggs donated specifically for research. Currently, the vast majority of human eggs given by donors are for IVF treatment and not for research. A recent consultation by the HFEA entitled 'Donating Eggs for Research: Safeguarding Donors' stressed both the ethical and safety concerns associated with methods used to collect human eggs. The creation of human-animal hybrid embryos is safe in that it involves no human participant, except for the collection of a few skin cells. Since the HFEA is aware of the risks associated with egg donation and the bias towards donation for fertility treatment purposes, it seems a pity that they should be considering not allowing a practise which has the potential to deliver many more embryos for research - without any risk to donors.

This consultation has come about due to the concerns of the Department of Health regarding public opinion on this issue. But the voices arguing against the work are few; indeed there has been a distinct lack of comment pieces in the press supporting a potential ban. Naysayers rely on two arguments: a moral argument, and the prediction that this avenue of research will be useless. The practise of creating human-animal hybrid embryos is, they say, unnatural, and therefore immoral. This is a familiar reaction to new biological technology: IVF is 'unnatural', but is now accepted as a useful technology to aid fertility treatment. And although no one yet knows whether this research will prove fruitful, this should not be used as argument for banning the work. The proper action should be to let the research commence, and to monitor the results for potential benefits, or ethical concerns.

One possible reaction from the science community to the announcement of this consultation would be to cry foul, as the HFEA has declared that this research work is not actually prohibited under current legislation. Indeed, it is worrying that two research projects will be delayed by approximately a year due to this issue. But those in a position to properly explain the work and its potential benefit should seize this opportunity to do so, making sure that their explanation is accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

Two important points must be brought to the attention of the public:

1) The enormous potential that this avenue of research could hold. The 'could' should also be stressed. Nothing tangible has resulted from this work at this stage, but scientists agree that this line of research should not be closed before its potential fruits can be assessed. The majority of our member charities support patients with conditions that have no cure or treatment; they rely on medical research pushing boundaries as the only route to a future cure or treatment for their condition.

2) The fact that there is absolutely no likelihood that this work could result in a 'hybrid-human' or any other 'Frankenstein's monster' type result. The subject of the research is cells, not animals. These embryos are a potentially useful research tool, and the potential for exploring new avenues of research should be welcomed.

1 September 2009 - by Adam Fletcher 
A variation of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), reported online in the journal Nature, could be used in humans to allow women with a certain group of incurable inherited conditions - known as mitochondrial disorders - to have children without passing on the condition. Because the technique, developed by Dr Shoukhrat Mitalipov and team from the Orgeon National Primate Research Centre, US, involves the the sperm from one monkey and two eggs from different monkeys...
21 January 2008 - by Katy Sinclair 
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) License Committee has granted two one-year licenses permitting scientists at Kings College London and Newcastle University to carry out research using human-animal embryos. Over the past 12 months the HFEA has been deliberating on whether the creation of embryos using...
10 September 2007 - by Dr Jess Buxton 
The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has agreed in principle to allow the creation of embryos that contain both human and animal material. 'Cybrid' embryo research - a technique to derive human embryonic stem (ES) cells using 'hollowed-out' animal eggs - has been the focus of...
19 June 2007 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
The UK's Academy of Medical Sciences has backed the creation of human-animal embryos for use in stem cell research, which is says should be subject to the same rules as research on human embryos, including the 14-day rule and a ban on implanting embryos into a...
21 May 2007 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
The UK Government has published a draft version of the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. The proposals will amend the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. As it stands, the Bill will ban the creation of embryos that contain genetic material from both animals...
15 January 2007 - by Dr Jess Buxton 
The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has announced that it will hold a public consultation on the use of animal eggs in human embryo research. The decision follows a meeting held last week, at which the authority considered applications from two teams who want...
7 January 2007 - by Dr Jess Buxton 
UK scientists hoping to use animal eggs in human embryonic stem (ES) cell research face a ban on their work, if proposals outlined in a recent White Paper become law. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which regulates all human embryo research carried out in...
17 December 2006 - by Dr Kirsty Horsey 
On Thursday 14 December, UK Public Health Minister Caroline Flint announced the publication of the British Government's proposals for a major overhaul of the law on assisted human reproduction and embryo research. The proposals, contained in a new 'White Paper', follow an extensive public consultation exercise...
13 November 2006 - by Stuart Scott 
Two teams of British scientists have applied for licences to create hybrid embryos from human and animal cells in order to create stem cells. The North East England Stem Cell Institute - a biotech research body run by the Universities of Durham and Newcastle - and the Stem Cell...
9 October 2006 - by Heidi Nicholl 
British scientists from three separate research centres have announced their intention to submit simultaneous proposals to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) later this month seeking a licence to create human-animal chimeras. The researchers - based in London, Newcastle and Edinburgh - are seeking approval to carry out...
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