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The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the United Kingdom's fertility watchdog, will decide this week whether to approve in principle the use of hybrid animal-human embryos for research.
Results of a public consultation on the matter, which were released before the authority's decisive meeting that was due to be held on Wednesday 5 September, indicate a widespread lack of understanding among the public on the need and worth of creating hybrid embryos. This is undermining public support for the matter. However, support for hybrid research increases as people appreciate the science involved and its possible applications.
Scientists are keen to develop hybrid embryos and a potential assured source of stem cells for research because the supply of human eggs and embryos is limited.
Results from an opinion poll conducted as part of the consultations show that 56% of 2073 UK residents interviewed in July supported the use of human embryos in research, but only 35% agreed that scientists should be able to create cytoplasmic embryos—those that use the shell of an animal egg—and implant human genetic material, making them 99.9% human.
Among respondents who say that they understand some of the science behind hybrid embryos, however, 43% supported their use in research. And support for the use of cytoplasmic embryos rises to 61% of respondents if they think that the research may help understand some diseases, such as Parkinson's disease and motor neurone disease.
But there is less certainty of the purpose and worth of creating true hybrid embryos, which contain half human and half animal genetic material, with just 35% of respondents supporting their use in research, although support rises to 43% among respondents with more scientific knowledge.
The authority launched a public debate about hybrid embryos in May (BMJ 2007;334:925 doi: 10.1136/bmj.39199.669907.DB). As well as the opinion poll, it conducted detailed work with smaller groups involving education about the science behind hybrids, a written consultation, public meeting, scientific review, and consultation with stakeholders.
The authority has concluded that overall its attempt to gauge public opinion on the matter has been “unsuccessful” because of a lack of understanding of the need for or worth of hybrid embryos among the public, which has made it difficult for the people who took part in the consultation to form a committed view.
However, it also concludes that there is sufficient evidence on hybrid embryos for the authority to make a decision about whether research units should be given the go ahead to use them in research.
Research groups from King's College London and Newcastle University applied to the authority for licences to create cytoplasmic hybrid embryos in November last year. Their applications are on hold. But if the authority decides that embryo research is in principle “legal, necessary, and desirable” the two applications will be considered by its licence committee.
Findings from the public consultation are at www.hfea.gov.uk. See bmj.com for the outcome of the meeting.