Government Urged Not To Ban Embryo Work

Scientists and lawmakers urged the government on Thursday to scrap a proposed ban on creating hybrid animal-human embryos for research into illnesses such as Parkinson’s, stroke and Alzheimer’s.

In December, the government proposed a ban on the creation of hybrid embryos due to what it called “considerable public unease”, but the Commons Science and Technology Committee said a ban was unacceptable and could harm British science.

“We are concerned that a ban or a proposed ban may not only encourage researchers to leave the United Kingdom in order to undertake their research in a more permissive regulatory regime, but it may also inhibit early stage researchers entering the field,” it said.

In a letter, 223 medical and patient organisations urged Prime Minister Tony Blair to let researchers create the embryos as a source of stem cells to help find new medical treatments.

Britain is one of the leading states for stem cell research, attracting scientists from around the world with a permissive environment that allows embryo studies within strict guidelines, but the proposed ban put that at risk, the committee said.

“This is a test of the government’s commitment to science,” said committee Chairman Phil Willis, a Liberal Democrat deputy.

Research that would put human DNA into hollowed out cow or rabbit cells has been put on hold since the Department of Health proposed its ban.

By using animal eggs, scientists at Kings College London and the North East England Stem Cell Institute in Newcastle Upon Tyne hope to overcome a shortage of human eggs for research.

They currently rely on human eggs left over from fertility treatments, but these are in short supply. The hybrid embryos, which would be destroyed within 14 days, would be more than 99 percent human but would contain a small amount of animal DNA.

The research would be legal under current British norms, but the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has postponed a ruling on licensing the work while it conducts a public consultation on hybrid embryos.

Scientists in China, the United States and Canada have already carried out similar work, the same technique used to create Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal.

Health Minister Caroline Flint has indicated the government is prepared to reconsider its December report, which proposed a ban on creating hybrid embryos but left the door open for later regulations that could allow such research under licence.

“We have made clear our support for embryo research in the advance of science and medicine and our aim to maintain the United Kingdom’s position at the forefront of this technology,” her department said in a statement.

“Whilst we have proposed an initial ban in general terms, we recognise that there may be potential benefits from such research and are certainly not ‘closing the door’ to it.”