February 26, 2024


The British fertility watchdog has approved the creation of human- animal embryos. After having lobbied long and hard for permission, stem cell scientists were relieved. Dr Stephen Minger, of King’s College, London, said: "These techniques provide the only ethically justifiable option given the large numbers of eggs required to derive cloned human stem cell lines from individuals with incurable and highly progressive neurological disorders."

Approval was almost certain after the released a long-awaited public consultation this week. The HFEA claimed that a majority — 61% –of Britons are "at ease" with the controversial procedure. However, this cheery interpretation involved some creative fudging on the HFEA’s part. True, 61% were in favour when told that the hybrids would help to understand diseases, but 22% had never even heard that such a thing was possible. And, to pick one amongst many figures, only 32% were unconcerned about what scientists might do next if they were allowed to create hybrids. Those who were most concerned, in fact, were those who were best informed.

The consultation, a three-month process of opinion polls, public meetings and debates, found that people were initially wary of merging animal and human material. However, after they were given more information, they began to see the light. There is more support for inserting human genetic material into hollowed-out animal eggs (cytoplasmic hybrids) than there is for combining human and animal gametes (true hybrids).

"It does seem a little abhorrent at first analysis, but you have to understand we are using very, very little information from the cow in order to do this reprogramming idea," says Dr Lyle Armstrong, of Newcastle University. "It’s not our intention to create any bizarre cow-human hybrid; we want to use those cells to understand how to make human stem cells better."

Hybrid embryos are strongly opposed by some groups. Dr Helen Watt, of the Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics, said the technique was a violation of the rights of the embryo. "The embryo is deprived not only of its life in the course of the experiment, but of any human parents," she told the BBC. "It is further dehumanised by the very method of its creation."