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In an apparent U turn the UK government has signalled its support for controversial research involving hybrid human-animal embryos.
Leading medical scientists were furious when in December last year a Department of Health white paper proposed a ban on such experiments (BMJ 2007;334:12 doi: 10.1136/bmj.39080.500648.DB).
The researchers said a ban would seriously impede the search for breakthroughs in treatments for illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease and cystic fibrosis.
Now, after intense lobbying by scientists, MPs, and patients' groups, the minister for public health, Caroline Flint, last week announced the draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill, which calls for an all party parliamentary committee to revise the proposed restrictions.
As it stands the draft bill still outlaws the formation of embryos with hybrid human-animal genomes. However, the appointment of Phil Willis, a vociferous supporter of such research, as the new committee's chairman is seen as a clear indication that ministers back such experiments.
The special committee, which will include prominent legal and scientific experts, must report back to ministers by 25 July with its proposals.
In another important development, Ms Flint has written to Mr Willis, who also chairs the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, assuring him that key research projects already proposed by scientists at King's College London and at Newcastle University are permissible under existing legislation.
These projects involve the injection of human genomes into empty animal egg cells. As such the resulting embryos are genetically over 99% human.
Stephen Minger, director of the stem cell biology laboratory at King's College, London, said, “We welcome the government's support for our research. However, we feel this should be permitted by the regulator rather than government. Only the regulators have the scientific and ethical expertise to assess cutting edge science.
“This research is important because these stem cell lines could help us to understand what goes wrong in catastrophic neurological disorders like Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.”
Robin Lovell-Badge, head of the division of developmental genetics at the Medical Research Council's National Institute for Medical Research, said: “It is reassuring that the advice of the scientific community and of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee seems to have been taken on board during the drafting of the legislation, which some of us had feared was being swayed more by the ‘yuck factor' and by those opposed to scientific progress than by common sense and real understanding of the issues.”
A member of the science and technology committee, Evan Harris, criticised the government for failing to find in favour of all types of hybrid embryo research without first resorting to another consultation period.
But Mr Willis was more positive. “I believe we are moving in the right direction,” he said. “We don't want to pick a fight with the government, and now that they've given us the chance to amend this draft bill we have a real chance to get good, forward looking legislation that will allow the regulator to approve this important research on a case by case basis.”
Mr Willis said that any such human-hybrid embryos—whether they used animal cells or animal nuclear material—would still be automatically destroyed after 14 days.
But pro-life groups to continue to oppose such research. Josephine Quintavalle, of the campaign group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said, “It is appalling that the government has bowed to pressure from the random collection of self-interested scientists and changed its prohibitive stance.
“This is a highly controversial and terrifying proposal, which has little justification in science and even less in ethics.”
Under the draft legislation the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority will be merged with the Human Tissue Authority to form the Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos (RATE).
The BMA's head of ethics and science, Vivienne Nathanson, said she was concerned by the merger, fearing “that the proposed new body will not be able to deal effectively with these two distinct and very sensitive areas of practice.”
(See News doi: 10.1136/bmj.39219.679248.DB.)