April 21, 2024

British scientists cheer government climb-down on hybrids

While we’re on the topic of flag-waving, British stem cell scientists are waving one, but it’s not the white kerchief of surrender, but the Union Jack of victory. Back in December a government white paper recommended that all hybrid embryos be banned. Scientists were outraged. But now, after extensive lobbying, the UK government nearly everything on their shopping list.

This includes all types of inter-species embryos, ranging from "true" hybrids (embryos created by the mixing of human and animal gametes), "cytoplasmic hybrid" embryos (embryos created by the insertion of a human nucleus into an enucleated animal egg); human transgenic embryos (human embryos modified by the addition of animal DNA); and human-animal chimera embryos (embryos created by the addition of animal cells to a human embryo).

The news was welcomed by the Academy of Medical Sciences, which crowed that there never had been any "substantive ethical or moral reasons not to proceed" and hailed as a "success" by the .

Embryo research was not the only other contentious issue on which the government retreated. Up to now, IVF clinics have been required to take into account a child’s need for a father. This has been deemed too discriminatory in a society where lesbian parents and single mothers are common. The final bill will probably eliminate the fatherhood requirement and replace it with a more tactful wording, such as the need for "a second parent". Clinics will only be required to take into consideration "the welfare of the child".

The ambit of "saviour siblings" will also be expanded. Formerly it was lawful for parents to create a child in order to harvest stem cells from the umbilical cord to cure a sick brother or sister. Now it will be possible to create a child to harvest "other types of tissue and cells".

The government did hold firm on a ban on sex selection for non- medical purposes. However, it acknowledged that "in some circumstances we recognise that it may not do harm", so further developments can be expected on this issue.

The UK’s fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, was the a big winner because it successfully fought off the government’s attempt to merge it with another agency. the amended bill is a step towards "an updated, clear framework that is fit for the scientific, moral and ethical pressures of the 21st Century".

It is also an example of science outpacing, not just ethics, but public relations. Earlier in the year the HFEA published a glossy pamphlet about hybrids and chimeras to sooth a wary public. Its focus was on cytoplasmic hybrids and true hybrids were barely mentioned. Why? Because "None of the scientists that we consulted could see a purpose for carrying out such research using human gametes." How much has changed in six months.  

Drug companies warm to drug tests with embryos

Three leading European pharmaceutical companies have teamed up with the British government to investigate the usefulness of embryonic stem cells for drug testing. GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca and Roche have each contributed ?100,000 and the government ?750,000 to form a consortium. This body will develop effective ways of using human embryonic stem cells to screen for potentially lethal side effects of new drugs before they are used in clinical trials. Other companies are expected to join the initiative soon. It is called Stem Cells for Safer Medicines Ltd.

One benefit of this approach is to make it less necessary to use animals in drug testing. Predicting the effects of drugs on humans using results from rats or monkeys can be difficult. "It’s a problem area where things can be totally silent pre-clinically in an animal and then, as soon as you go into a patient, you get a reaction," said Dr Ian Cotgreave, a toxicologist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden who also works at AstraZeneca. Although the use of human embryonic stem cells is ethically controversial, science minister Ian Pearson cited the new collaboration as an example of his government’s commitment to this avenue of research.