A recent YouGov poll has shown that almost half of the general public is in favour of legalising research on embryos up to 28 days old.
Human embryo research is currently regulated in the UK by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 1990, which states that no research can be carried out on embryos beyond 14 days after fertilisation.
Until recently, the limit has been largely theoretical as scientists were unable to grow embryos in the laboratory for this long. However, in 2016 researchers led by Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, University of Cambridge, demonstrated the ability to develop embryos for up to 13 days by chemically mimicking the womb in the laboratory (see BioNews 850). The embryos were destroyed after 13 days to comply with the law, but the research showed that it might be technically possible to keep them developing for longer.
Some scientists believe much could be learned about human development if embryos could be studied outside the womb for up to four weeks, a period known as the 'black box' of embryo development. Dr Simon Fishel, founder of CARE Fertility, thinks that observing how the embryo changes over weeks could shed light on why some early miscarriages occur.
However, Professor David Jones, Director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, has argued against changing the limit because he says it would extend embryo growth beyond a point where it can no longer be successfully implanted. He told BBC News: 'It would be a stepping stone to the culturing of embryos and even fetuses outside the womb. People will then ask why can't we shift it beyond 28 days?'
A limit of 14 days was proposed in the Warnock Report in 1984. A proposal to extend the limit from 14 days was discussed at the Progress Educational Trust (PET) annual conference in December last year (see Bionews 880) – PET has since made a submission to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee arguing for a new Parliamentary inquiry into the issue. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is also due to publish a report of its recent workshop on the issue.
The recent poll, answered by 1,740 people, revealed that 48 percent of respondents were in favour of extending the limit up to 28 days, 23 percent did not know, and 19 percent wanted to keep the present limit. Ten percent of respondents wanted to ban embryo research completely.