BBC: UK to Create Human-Animal Hybreds
Human-animal embryo study wins approval
Mixing cells and eggs to be allowed in search for new medical treatments * Ian Sample, science correspondent * The Guardian, * Tuesday September 4 2007 * Article history
Plans to allow British scientists to create human-animal embryos are expected to be approved tomorrow by the government's fertility regulator. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority published its long-awaited public consultation on the controversial research yesterday, revealing that a majority of people were "at ease" with scientists creating the hybrid embryos.
Researchers want to create hybrid embryos by merging human cells with animal eggs, in the hope they will be able to extract valuable embryonic stem cells from them. The cells form the basic building blocks of the body and are expected to pave the way for revolutionary therapies for diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and even spinal cord injuries.
The consultation papers were released ahead of the authority's final decision on the matter, which will mark the end of almost a year of intense lobbying by scientists and a fervent campaign by organisations opposed to research involving embryonic stem cells.
Using animal eggs will allow researchers to push ahead unhindered by the shortage of human eggs. Under existing laws, the embryos must be destroyed after 14 days when they are no bigger than a pinhead, and cannot be implanted into the womb.
Opponents of the research and some religious groups say the work blurs the distinction between humans and animals, and creates embryos that are destined to be destroyed when stem cells are extracted from them.
Two research groups based at King's College London and Newcastle University have already applied to the HFEA to create animal-human embryos, but their applications have been on hold since November last year amid confusion over whether the authority was legally able to issue licences.
If the authority approves the research, the applications will go forward to a committee, with a decision on both due within three months.
Professor Ian Wilmut, whose team cloned Dolly the sheep, is waiting for the HFEA's decision before applying to create hybrid embryos to study motor neurone disease with Professor Chris Shaw at the Institute of Psychiatry in London.
The consultation, a £150,000, three-month mix of opinion polls, public meetings and debates, found participants were initially cautious of merging animal and human material, but became more positive. "When further factual information was provided and further discussion took place, the majority of participants became more at ease with the idea," the HFEA's report says.
Most support was expressed for the creation of so-called cytoplasmic hybrid embryos, in which a human cell is inserted into an empty animal egg. Other hybrid embryos, such as those created by fertilising an animal egg with human sperm, or vice versa, were less well supported.
In December, the government sparked a revolt by scientists, patient groups and medical researchers when it published a white paper containing proposals to outlaw almost all research into animal-human embryos. The research has since been backed by Nobel prizewinners, the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, the Commons science and technology committee, and the government's chief science adviser, Sir David King.
In May, the government withdrew its opposition in a draft fertility bill and now seeks to outlaw only embryos created by mixing sperm and eggs from humans and animals. The bill will be put before parliament before the end of the year.
Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, said: "The HFEA's consultation reveals welcome recognition of the potential of this research, [with] 61% of the general public agreeing with the creation of human-animal embryos, if it may help understand diseases, with only a quarter opposed to this research