This week saw another very positive illustration of the rigour and effectiveness of the regulatory system that exists in the UK to licence research using human embryos. However, it also highlighted ambiguities in the wording of the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which is currently the focus of a review by the Department of Health.
As reported in this week's BioNews, below, a new research project, to be undertaken by scientists at Newcastle University and funded by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, has been licensed by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). The research aims to evaluate a technique that should enable the development of treatment for couples who wish to start a family, where they know they carry a significant risk of transmitting a specific, potentially catastrophic, disorder to their children, through the DNA carried in the mother's mitochondria. This technique, as for couples undergoing the now well-established (and equally controversial, at the outset) technique of PGD, will enable at-risk couples to embark upon a pregnancy confident that this specific risk has been eliminated.
Under the UK licensing system, all research proposals are scrutinised for scientific merit and potential clinical application by peer review. This particular research licence was initially rejected, not on scientific grounds, but due to concerns about whether or not it would conform with the 1990 Act, whereby it is illegal to 'alter the genetic structure of any cell while it forms any part of an embryo'. However, after an appeal, during which the appeal committee heard from a range of eminent geneticists and developmental biologists, the licence was approved, on the grounds that the phrase 'genetic structure' has no precise meaning.
The announcement of the HFEA's decision was greeted with outrage from the pro-life movement, who roundly condemned the HFEA's decision. This is what we, as researchers, have come to expect from groups whose opinions are based upon fundamentally held beliefs which, whilst respected and accepted by those who support embryo research, will not be altered by even the most persuasive argument of the personal tragedies that such work holds the promise of avoiding.
While the views of the pro-life movement are well-known, and their response predictable, what was disappointing and unexpected was the reporting of the proposed research by even the broadsheet newspapers, the majority of which adopted the phrase 'the baby with two mothers' to punctuate the story. This, of course, was seized upon by the tabloids, who talked of 'designer tots with two mums' (the Sun), for example, thereby managing to combine the spectres of 'designer babies' and of tinkering with genes in the minds of any sceptical readers.
Those of us who were involved in the campaign for legislation to permit licensed research using human embryos during the late 1980s were faced with the enormous challenge of reversing public opinion, when the majority were vehemently opposed to such research. However, we rightly recognised that in the majority of cases, this opposition stemmed primarily from instinctive feelings of revulsion and prejudice, rather than through fundamentalism. We saw that to reverse public opinion opposed to such research required a process of education and persuasion, explaining the potential benefits of such research in terms of reduced human suffering.
The free vote in the House of Commons in 1990 that resulted in statutory support for licensed research using human embryos was a triumph of humanitarian common sense over prejudice. But it came after a not insignificant struggle. I think it is safe to say that the public - while not necessarily understanding or accepting all developments in the field of embryo research since 1990 - feel positively about developments that have the potential to treat or cure well-known diseases. It would be a tragedy at this vital time if public opinion changed direction because of the ill-advised use of a catchy headline.