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Government proposals to prevent the creation of part human, part animal embryos for research purposes have been condemned by an influential group of MPs.
MPs on the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology said that the Department of Health's stance was out of line with scientists, funders of research, the regulator, patients' groups, other government departments, and even the prime minister.
The committee this week published the findings of its inquiry into government proposals for the regulation of human-animal chimeras or hybrid embryos.
The issue arose after two teams of scientists at Newcastle University and King's College London submitted applications last year to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to create animal-human embryos known as “cybrids” for stem cell research (BMJ 2007;334:495, 10 Mar, doi: 10.1136/bmj.39143.448345.DB). These would be 99.9% human and 0.1% animal and would produce embryonic stem cells to help efforts in understanding diseases such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and cystic fibrosis.
But licences will not be granted until the HFEA completes its own consultation in September.
The government proposed banning such research in a white paper published in December last year. It is currently agreeing its draft bill (due out in May) that will form the basis of new laws on fertility treatment and embryo research.
The science and technology committee, in its newly published inquiry, said that the government's proposals were unacceptable and too prohibitive.
It has urged the authority to consider the current research applications by King's College London and Newcastle University promptly.
The report says: “Research, by its very nature, is aimed at enhancing knowledge. Whilst we recognise scientific debate about the potential usefulness of cytoplasmic hybrid embryos in research, we do not believe that the existence of differing views of whether a methodology is workable before it has been sufficiently tested is reason enough to prohibit such research from taking place.”
The committee called for legislation to allow regulation of research using animal-human hybrid embryos through licensing.
It strongly criticised the HFEA for delaying the research applications in question, which had held up the start of important research.
Greater public confidence in research that uses such hybrid embryos was needed, the MPs said, and they recommended that the government do more to educate the public on this issue.
The chairman of the committee, Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, said, “This is a test of the government's commitment to science. Scientists, funders, the regulator and patient interest groups, even the DTI [Department of Trade and Industry] and the Prime Minister, have spoken out against the Department of Health's proposals.
“We very much hope the department will listen and reflect the committee's conclusions when the draft Tissue and Embryos Bill is published next month.
“We fully appreciate the concerns of those who oppose research into hybrid and chimera embryos—or indeed any human embryos—on moral and ethical grounds, but we feel that it is in the interests of science, the public, and the UK that the current applications should be considered by the HFEA promptly.”
The report can be seen at http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/science_and_technology_committee.cfm.