The creation of human/animal admixed or 'hybrid' embryos is happening at a rapid rate, according to the experts developing them at Newcastle University, who say that the process is easier than they initially thought.
Speaking at the BIO biotechnology conference in San Diego last week, Dr Lyle Armstrong, leader of the human/animal hybrid embryo project, explained that the technique of inserting genetically empty cow eggs with human DNA from skin cells has already produced about 270 hybrid embryos. No other research group in the world has spoken of producing these embryos on such a large scale. 'We might be able to get eight to 10 human oocytes [eggs] of sufficient quality per month', Armstrong told the Financial Times newspaper. 'We can get 200 cow eggs a day from the local meat industry', he added.
The process was developed with the intention of overcoming the shortage in supply of human eggs for the production of stem cell, which are subsequently used for research into a wide range of currently incurable diseases, such as diabetes, strokes and Parkinson's. Amid intense opposition from religious groups and pro-life lobbies, Armstrong insists that the creation of these embryos is ethically sound. 'The embryos are mostly self-regulating, because they arrest naturally at 32 cells - which is quite good from an ethical point of view', he said, adding: 'There is no way these embryos could develop into a foetus'. The law does not permit the development of a hybrid embryo beyond 14 days.
Until now, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) granted permissions to research such as this on a case-by-case basis, since no existing law was applicable to it. However, the new Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is expected to pass through Parliament shortly and looks likely to provide a firm legal basis for hybrid embryo research. In January, the House of Lords refused to reject clauses in the bill that allow the research, despite pressure from opponents, and last month, MPs voted down a bid to ban human admixed embryo research by 336 to 176 votes and another to ban true hybrids by 286 to 223 votes.