Dr Austin Smith, of the Centre for Genome Research, Edinburgh, has called for a change in the law, to allow couples to donate embryos for research into stem cell therapies. Dr Smith told the Guardian newspaper that attempts to find the Holy Grail of frontier medical research 'were being hampered by the poor quality of embryos available'.
UK scientists studying miscarriage, infertility, genetic disease or contraception are permitted to carry out research on embryos up to 14 days old. Research into 'therapeutic cloning' - the use of cloned embryo stem cells to develop tissues and organs for transplant - is banned at present. But Dr Smith's licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority allows him to try and grow stem cells using embryos left over from fertility treatment.
The government is currently awaiting the findings of an expert panel on therapeutic cloning, headed by Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson. But Dr Smith argues that media focus on whether to allow scientists to create cloned human embryos has clouded the most important issues about existing regulations. He points out that for the immediate future, stem cell researchers will be reliant on embryos created by conventional means.
Dr Smith says that most of the fertilised eggs his team receive from fertility clinics only divide once or twice before dying, and so cannot be used to isolate embryonic stem cells. 'A change in the law, a positive signal from the government and hopefully positive coverage in the media might encourage people to donate embryos for this research more than has hitherto been the case' he said.