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The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the United Kingdom's fertility regulator, has launched a public debate on the ethics of creating hybrid animal-human embryos for research.
The decision to consult the public comes after a provisional proposal by the government last December to ban the creation of hybrid and chimera embryos, which brought an outcry from MPs and scientists (BMJ 2007;334:12, 6 Jan doi: doi: 10.1136/bmj.39080.500648.DB).
The HFEA, which was criticised by MPs for holding up a decision on research applications from scientists at King's College London and Newcastle University, said it would take a policy decision next September on whether or not to allow such research.
The embryos would help stem cell research by allowing scientists to use animal eggs rather than scarce human ones.
The two teams that have applied for permission want to produce cloned embryos that would be 99.9% human and 0.1% animal, using eggs from rabbits and cows and genetic material from humans.
In a report this month the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee described the government's planned ban as “unacceptable and potentially harmful to UK science,” and it urged the HFEA not to delay decisions on the research applications.
The committee's chairman, the Liberal Democrat MP Phil Willis, welcomed the HFEA's decision to hold a public consultation. He said, “We would like to see as much public involvement and engagement in this decision as possible.”
The HFEA is asking for responses to its consultation paper through an online questionnaire.
A public meeting will be held in London in June, chaired by the television presenter Nick Ross, and workshops will be conducted around the UK. An opinion poll will target more than 2000 people.
The HFEA's chairwoman, Shirley Harrison, said, “The possibility of creating human embryos that contain animal DNA clearly raises key ethical and social questions that we need to take into consideration before deciding whether or not we can permit this type of research.
“Groups who are strongly for or against this type of research often made their views clear to us. But as this is a complex area of science, many other people might feel that they don't know enough about the issue to take part in the debate or give their views.
“As regulator, we certainly don't want to hold research up without cause, but it's vital that we understand the broader public view on this new area of research to allow that support and trust to continue.”
Meanwhile, the HFEA is to be asked to clear the way for two couples who risk producing children with the BRAC1 gene, which greatly increases the risk of developing breast cancer in adulthood, to screen embryos for the gene before implantation.
The HFEA took a policy decision last year that preimplantation genetic diagnosis should be available in principle for conditions such as BRCA related breast cancer but said that it would consider applications on a case by case basis.
The HFEA consultation paper on hybrids and chimeras is at www.hfea.gov.uk/en/1517.html.