Regulator defends its decision to delay use of hybrid embryos

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: (Published 08 February 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:281
  1. Adrian O'Dowd
  1. 1London

    The fertility regulator has defended its decision to halt applications for human hybrid research in the United Kingdom during a parliamentary inquiry.

    The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), independent regulator of in vitro fertilisation treatment and embryo research in the UK, said that research involving hybrids of human and animal cells was “very new and very controversial.”

    Representatives from the authority were giving evidence to the cross party science and technology committee of MPs as part of its inquiry into government proposals to regulate the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos for research.

    The government has published a white paper proposing changes to the existing Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act and proposes a ban on the creation of hybrid or chimera embryos—those combining material from humans and other animals (BMJ 2007;334:12, 6 Jan).

    Angela McNab, chief executive of the HFEA, told the committee that the authority was justified in deciding to hold a public consultation on this matter.

    “It's because this is such a novel area and such a large step, and because the issues are not black and white, that in this unusual circumstance, we have taken the step of saying we will hold off from considering those applications,” she said.

    “This is an area which is very new and very controversial so we feel it is only fair to take a wider view.”

    MPs also heard from three witnesses who represented organisations that wished to do research but had not got approval from the HFEA.

    Chris Shaw, professor of neurology and neurogenetics at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College, London, said the research he had asked the HFEA to license would “tell us about disease mechanisms and will allow us to treat those cells and see whether we can reverse the disease process and discover new treatments.”

    The scientist witnesses said the wording used in the white paper was “not helpful” and needed to be clarified; they agreed a more accurate term was “cybrids” or “pseudo-hybrids.”

    When asked what the consequences would be were this work permanently stopped, Professor Shaw said, “If you stop it, then you are really putting a halt on all that sort of work, and I think that's not only bad for science, but it's bad for our patients, and it's bad for the community.”

    In a subsequent evidence session, Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said that it could be worth funding the research proposed in this area, adding, “What is being offered in this case is the possibility of very significant improvement in success rate [of treating diseases].

    “The problem is that the notion of combining human and animal material generates a ‘yuck' factor that might actually not be justified by knowledge of the public about the reality of what is involved.”

    Martin Bobrow, deputy chairman of the Wellcome Trust, when asked about the proposed research, said, “There is reasonable agreement [in the scientific community] that this is a reasonable line of inquiry.”

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