Scientists Triumph In Battle Over Ban On Hybrid Embryos

Plans to outlaw the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos for potentially life-saving stem cell research are to be dropped after a revolt by scientists. The proposed government ban on fusing human DNA with animal eggs, which promises insights into incurable conditions such as Alzheimer’s and motor neuron disease, will be abandoned because of concerns among senior ministers that it will damage British science.

While ministers will not endorse the research in full yet, they are no longer seeking legislation to prohibit it, The Times has learnt. The Government will instead provide the fertility watchdog with funds for a public debate on the subject before new laws are drafted.

Government support for an interim ban had been announced by Caroline Flint, the Public Health Minister, in December, in a White Paper reviewing the fertility laws. It provoked outrage in the scientific community, with researchers describing the proposal as “an affront to patients” that would jeopardise Britain’s position as a world leader in stem cell science.

Last month 45 scientists, ethicists and politicians, including three Nobel prizewinners, wrote to The Times to support the hybrid embryo work. It has been backed by the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, Britain’s two biggest funders of medical science, and by the Human Genetics Commission, which advises ministers on genetic matters.

The proposed ban also opened divisions within the Government. Malcolm Wicks, the Science Minister, told MPs recently that a ban would damage the international reputation of British science, and Tony Blair has signalled his support of hybrid research.

Government sources said last night that there was now an acceptance that the Department of Health had failed fully to understand the importance of hybrid embryos or the work that scientists want to do, and that a rethink is required.

The intention is now to find a way to allow the research to proceed, regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

Ms Flint is expected to address the subject tomorrow when she gives evidence to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into hybrid embryos.

Ms Flint justified a ban initially by citing a public consultation in which most participants were opposed to the creation of hybrids. Scientists pointed out that the exercise drew just 535 responses, and was primarily concerned with canvassing opinion about regulation of fertility treatment. Many of the responses critical of hybrids also came from religious groups.

Ministers have now been convinced that that consultation was flawed. The HFEA last month announced its own consultation, before it decides whether to award licences to three teams seeking permission to create hybrids, and the Government will provide funds this week to expand this research.

This will allow the authority to mount a “public engagement” programme, involving citizens’ juries and in-depth opinion research, rather than simply inviting submissions from pressure groups.

Scientists are keen to use animal eggs to create cloned human embryos as laboratory models for studying disease. DNA from a patient with a condition such as motor neuron disease would be inserted into the shell of a rabbit or cow egg from which the nucleus has been removed. The embryo would be 99.9 per cent human, and would carry genetic errors implicated in the disease in question. It would then be split up to create stem cells, for studying the condition’s progress and testing new drugs.