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Debate Over Human Fertilisation And Embryology Act Reform Fires Up, UK

September 16, 2017

The HFEA has held off making a decision on the applications before it to create human-animal embryos for research purposes. It said it wanted to see a "full and proper public debate and consultation as to whether, in principle, licences for these sorts of research could be granted." It proposes to hold a consultation and suggests it will be in a position to consider the applications in the autumn.

Professor Colin Blakemore responded "While the Medical Research Council is pleased that the HFEA did not rule out applications in this important area of research involving human-animal embryos, the postponement of a decision is disappointing. The ensuing delay will be a blow to scientists and to those who pin their hopes on advances in medical research to tackle diseases which affect them or their loved ones."

A number of stem cell scientists have expressed concern at this indecision. They say they're worried it is linked to the Government's indication in its White Paper Review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act that it plans initially to ban the creation of hybrid and chimera embryos in vitro.

Scientists are worried their research proposals to create hybrid embryonic cells using somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) into animal eggs will be delayed and the necessary scientific evidence to convince the Government of the importance of this tool to develop vital treatments will not be able to be compiled.

Since the publication of the White Paper, ministers have suggested the regulations would come in to allow this type of research only when its potential benefits were clear. However the Prime Minister has also given his assurance that "research that's really going to save lives and improve the quality of life will be able to go forward."

The extent to which the current law and regulations apply to embryos combining human and animal material is ambiguous and there is no doubt any new legislation would have to clarify the situation. The MRC chief executive Colin Blakemore added "It's important that medical research is able to progress within the parameters of the current regulations governing research on human embryos. There is a strict ban on the implantation of embryos created by somatic cell nuclear transfer and a 14-day limit before which the embryos cultured in vitro must be destroyed."

Colin Blakemore added: "The MRC recognises that the creation of such hybrids raises concerns among some members of the public. However, without robust evidence as to the basis or extent of such concerns, we're not persuaded that there is a case for changing the current legislation regarding research."

In 2003, the MRC and a coalition of organisations with a common interest in stem cell research commissioned MORI to carry out a national survey of the public's views about the use of human embryos for medical research. It showed that around 70 per cent of the British public support the use of human embryos for medical research to find treatments for serious diseases and for fertility research.

Colin Blakemore concluded "There will always be those who take a different view, and this type of research, whether it involves the use of animal eggs or donated human eggs will always be fraught with ethical dilemmas. Our overriding concern in the absence of any evidence of harm to anyone must be providing our scientists with the best and most robust regulatory framework to allow them to carry out potentially life-saving research. We owe this to those suffering from diseases, like motor neurone disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease, which currently have no cure."

The Medical Research Council will respond positively and actively to the HFEA's proposed consultation. "We hope that any public debate will be informed by a rational presentation of the scientific case and not by knee-jerk responses. We will continue to talk to the Government and the public about the benefits this type of research could yield," said Professor Blakemore.

"In recent years, scientists have been attracted to our shores by the robust and progressive regulatory environment as much as the UK's outstanding tradition of scientific excellence and leadership. Let us hope they do not feel the tide is turning," he added.

Click here for the Medical Research Council's response the Government consultation.