Medical research involving animals that contain human material (ACHM) raises new ethical concerns and should be more tightly regulated, warns a new report by the Academy of Medical Sciences.
It recommends that the creation of embryos that are 'predominantly animal' but contain some human cells should be restricted and a national expert body should be established to oversee and regulate ACHM research.
An expert working group, chaired by Martin Bobrow, Professor Emeritus of medical genetics at the University of Cambridge, said research should be banned if it involves the creation of animals with complex cognitive abilities, human-like behaviour, or characteristics such as self-awareness, reasoning and language that would raise their moral status to that of the great apes or humans.
'This is a complex research area and there should be ongoing dialogue between scientists, regulators and the wider public to address emerging issues', said Professor Bobrow. 'Our report recommends that the Home Office puts in place a national expert body, within the existing stringent system of animal research regulation, to provide specific advice on sensitive types of ACHM research'.
Research involving ACHM includes the creation of animals that have had human DNA sequences or human cells incorporated into them. The animals are primarily used to study human diseases and to develop new therapeutic products. Most of this research involves mice, as well as fruit flies, zebra fish, rats, sheep and goats.This type of research is not new, and the majority is already adequately regulated in the UK, the report says. But the working group also considered potential types of future research that might transgress ethical boundaries.
'If you start putting very large numbers of human brain cells into primates, suddenly you might transform primates into something that has some of the capacities that we regard as distinctively human', said Professor Tom Baldwin, a philosopher at the University of York and member of the working group. 'These possibilities, at the moment, are largely being explored in fiction but we need to start thinking about them now'.
Research that involves the creation of embryos containing a mixture of human and non-human primate cells should also be banned, the report recommends. At present, human embryos containing animal cells are not allowed to develop beyond 14 days under UK law. No similar regulation exists for embryos that are 'predominantly animal' but contain some human cells, and the report recommends that this should be restricted. The breeding of animals that can produce human sperm or egg cells should also be restricted, in order to prevent the creation of human-animal hybrids, the report states.
An Ipsos MORI study commissioned by the working group found that the public were largely supportive of most types of ACHM research. For the most part the respondents did not perceive it to be significantly different from animal research, and were mainly concerned about animal welfare.
Starting an open and inclusive dialogue is important, said Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, a member of the expert working group and developmental biologist at the National Institute of Medical Research in London. 'We don't want scientists to cause problems for the future by overstepping the mark of what is publicly acceptable'.