April 14, 2024

Enthusiasm for hybrid embryos spreads

Hybrid embryos are clearly the Next Big Thing in stem cell research. Hard on the heels of a decision by the UK’s fertility authority to allow approved research groups to create them, the idea is popping up everywhere. And, as usual, the more controversial the research, the more dramatic the alleged benefits.

In Scotland, the creator of Dolly the clone sheep has predicted that therapies resulting from stem cells will one day be as common as antibiotics. Professor Ian Wilmut says that hybrid embryos, created using cow eggs and human DNA, are essential to study genetic diseases and test drugs. “If we could have nerves in the dish which show that change, then people with the right sort of technology would be able to literally test thousands of compounds every year,” he said. “That is probably 1000 times faster than anything that can be done in any other way at the present time.” Professor Wilmut is thinking of applying for permission to create hybrid embryos.

In the US, the New York Times has given the “valuable alternative” of hybrid embryos its tentative backing. The main reason for this radical step, it notes, is that “there are distressingly few women willing to donate their eggs for experiments at the frontier of this promising science.” According to the Times, stem cell researchers at Harvard spent US$100,000 in advertising to encourage women to donate their eggs — but after hearing how difficult it would be, not one volunteered.

Even the disgraced Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk is climbing onto the band wagon, although he apparently prefers the more neutral term “inter-species nucleus transplant”. He and ten colleagues have moved to an unnamed university in Thailand to conduct research on hybrid embryos. According to a colleague at Cheju National University, Park Se-Pill, Hwang wants to avoid provoking further protests from civic and religious groups in Korea, even though he would not be breaking any laws there. “These days the ethical yardstick is more important than judicial judgements,” Dr Park commented glumly.

Hwang is still fighting fraud charges in Korea over faked experiments which purported to show that his team had created human embryonic stem cell lines.