The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has announced a public consultation on the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos. Scientists want to use such embryos to create genetically human embryonic stem cells (ES cells). This method would overcome difficulties associated with the collection of human eggs from donors, and would provide a much more fruitful source of embryos for scientists.
The human-animal hybrid embryo is formed from an animal egg cell (most likely from cows or rabbits). This egg cell's nuclear DNA is removed and replaced with nuclear DNA from an adult human. The cell is then 'kick-started' - with a small electric shock - into commencing cell division. Under current UK laws, this embryo is allowed to be kept in the laboratory for fourteen days, after which it must be destroyed. A fourteen day old embryo bears no resemblance to any animal, it is no more than a ball of cells: a blastocyst, and should not be confused with a fetus. The embryo would be almost 100 per cent human - the only non-human DNA in the cell comes as part of the cell's mitochondria: apparatus for providing the cell with energy.
If the HFEA reaches the conclusion, post consultation, that this practice should not be licensed, the only remaining method for creating ES cells genetically matched to patients will be through using eggs donated specifically for research. Currently, the vast majority of human eggs given by donors are for IVF treatment and not for research. A recent consultation by the HFEA entitled 'Donating Eggs for Research: Safeguarding Donors' stressed both the ethical and safety concerns associated with methods used to collect human eggs. The creation of human-animal hybrid embryos is safe in that it involves no human participant, except for the collection of a few skin cells. Since the HFEA is aware of the risks associated with egg donation and the bias towards donation for fertility treatment purposes, it seems a pity that they should be considering not allowing a practise which has the potential to deliver many more embryos for research - without any risk to donors.
This consultation has come about due to the concerns of the Department of Health regarding public opinion on this issue. But the voices arguing against the work are few; indeed there has been a distinct lack of comment pieces in the press supporting a potential ban. Naysayers rely on two arguments: a moral argument, and the prediction that this avenue of research will be useless. The practise of creating human-animal hybrid embryos is, they say, unnatural, and therefore immoral. This is a familiar reaction to new biological technology: IVF is 'unnatural', but is now accepted as a useful technology to aid fertility treatment. And although no one yet knows whether this research will prove fruitful, this should not be used as argument for banning the work. The proper action should be to let the research commence, and to monitor the results for potential benefits, or ethical concerns.
One possible reaction from the science community to the announcement of this consultation would be to cry foul, as the HFEA has declared that this research work is not actually prohibited under current legislation. Indeed, it is worrying that two research projects will be delayed by approximately a year due to this issue. But those in a position to properly explain the work and its potential benefit should seize this opportunity to do so, making sure that their explanation is accessible to as wide an audience as possible.
Two important points must be brought to the attention of the public:
1) The enormous potential that this avenue of research could hold. The 'could' should also be stressed. Nothing tangible has resulted from this work at this stage, but scientists agree that this line of research should not be closed before its potential fruits can be assessed. The majority of our member charities support patients with conditions that have no cure or treatment; they rely on medical research pushing boundaries as the only route to a future cure or treatment for their condition.
2) The fact that there is absolutely no likelihood that this work could result in a 'hybrid-human' or any other 'Frankenstein's monster' type result. The subject of the research is cells, not animals. These embryos are a potentially useful research tool, and the potential for exploring new avenues of research should be welcomed.