March 1, 2024

British scientists try again to sell hybrid embryos to a sceptical public

Now by the Academy of Medical Sciences

After a great kerfuffle last year, UK parliament authorised scientists to create hybrid animal-human embyros under licence. However, it was clear that the public had serious misgivings, as there is a powerful yuck factor in such experiments. At the time, many opponents spoke darkly of H.G. Wells’s horror scifi classic, The Island of Dr Moreau.

With that in mind, the UK’s Academy of Medical Sciences has launched a 12-18 month study of how best to swing the public behind this controversial research. Its press release talks vaguely about new “ethical challenges” — although it hard to imagine anything more challenging than creating hybrid embryos using human sperm and animal eggs or creating cytoplasmic hybrid embryos by placing human genetic material in an animal egg. These are already legal.

“It is important to ensure that this exciting research can progress within limits that scientists, the government and the public support,” says Professor Martin Bobrow, the chair of the working group. “We will not only be focusing on the ethical dimensions of this research but also on how it is perceived by the public. Do these constructs challenge our idea of what it is to be human? It is important that we consider these questions now so that appropriate boundaries are recognised and research is able to fulfil its potential.”

The British public must be a hard sell, as this is effectively the second big-budget consultation about human-animal hybrids. The UK’s fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, conducted a long consultation in 2007 which paved the way for last year’s change in the law.

Michael Cook