Friday, January 12, 2007

UK chimeric stem cell research in the balance

By Dr Matt Wilkinson

12/01/2007 - The UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has called for a public consultation into the use of animal eggs to create cloned hybrid or chimeric human embryos for laboratory-based disease research.

The HFEA has ruled that while it has the authority to license research into human-animal hybrid embryos and that while legislation doesn't prohibit it, it doesn't have enough evidence to grant licenses and so has called for a public consultation. The consultation will be completed by the autumn and forestalls the licensing decision about this controversial and potentially life-changing technology.
In a statement to the press, Angela McNab, HFEA chief executive, said: “The issues around hybrid and chimera research are unique and different from mainstream human embryo research. They have proved challenging but as the independent regulator we have a duty to judge this work under the current law.”

“After weighing up the scientific, legal and ethical issues presented to Wednesday's meeting, the authority decided that there needs to be a full and proper public debate and consultation as to whether, in principle, licences for these sorts of research could be granted.”

Dr Stephen Minger, Kings College London and Lyle Armstrong, Newcastle University, have both applied to the HFEA for licenses to carry out research into human-animal hybrid embryos also known as chimeric embryos.

The research would involve cloning human eggs inside the shell of rabbit or cow eggs from which the nucleus has been removed, a technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). SCNT using human eggs is currently legal in the UK and the USA.

The resulting clones, which would be 99.5 per cent human, could be used as a source of embryonic stem cells, as well as models on which to study new therapies for devastating neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's and motor neuron disease.

The UK government had recently been accused of bowing to pressure from religious groups after ministers sought legislation to prohibit the experiments. The HFEA has shown that it is willing to listen to all arguments and feels it has the responsibility to allow scientists to present the evidence to the public and allow time for a proper debate.

Commenting on the decision, Armstrong said: “Overall, I think the HFEA announcement is a lot better than it could have been. They have not supported an outright ban of our work and moreover, the possibility of a further public consultation exercise gives us the opportunity to explain why the science is so very important for Britain and humanity in general.”

Minger said: “One good outcome is that the HFEA has not buckled under pressure from the government on this issue.”

Following the announcement, Aisling Burnand, chief executive of the UK's BioIndustry Association (BIA), commented: "The BIA is pleased that the HFEA's announcement does not support the proposed ban in the Government White Paper on research using hybrid embryos."

"There is widespread scientific and public support for this ground-breaking medical research into treatments for diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and motor neurone disease."

"Preventing the research would dash the hopes of millions of patients. It would also completely undermine the Government's support for stem cell research and its commitment to establishing the UK as a world-leading location for innovative scientific research."