April 14, 2024


British stem cell scientists are fuming because their government will probably ban experiments with hybrid embryos which combine human and animal genetic material. They have issued dire warnings that hundreds of thousands of patients with diseases of the nervous system could miss out on potentially life-saving treatment. “To shut that down is a real affront to patients who are desperate for therapy,” says Professor Chris Shaw, of King’s College London. The government will make a decision this week.

The Blair government, which has generally taken the permissive option in bioethical matters, seems to be responding to a collective “yuk” from the public. A Department of Health consultation on changes to the UK’s fertility legislation received 535 responses, of which 340 focused on hybrid embryos, even though only one of 30 questions dealt with this topic. About 80% were opposed. Scientists are muttering that conservative pressure groups hijacked the poll. Dr Evan Harris, an outspoken MP who normally takes a progressive stand on bioethical issues,supported them, saying that “queasiness is not a good reason to prevent research going ahead that is strictly regulated.”

In its lead editorial Nature declared that hybrid embryos were clearly needed, but that scientists had to present a more nuanced case to assuage public concerns. After all, there are similar lines of research which carry even more risks, such as transferring human brain cells into primates, or human embryonic stem cells into primate embryos. The public needs a comprehensive proposal for regulating all such research, or the doors may slam shut even on experiments with “minimal safety risk”.