UK: House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s report on the regulation of hybrid and chimera embryos

29 May 2007

Ewan Grist

On 5 April 2007, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (the “STC”) published a report on the Government’s proposals for the regulation of animal/human hybrid and chimera embryos for use in research. The report focuses on the proposed legislation in this area as set out in the White Paper ‘Review of the Human Fertilisation and Enbryology Act: Proposals for revised legislation’ (published on 14 December 2006), and on the impact of these proposals upon stem cell research in the UK.

The backdrop to the STC’s inquiry was the proposal by the Government that the creation of human-animal chimera and hybrid embryos for research purposes be prohibited for the time being, notwithstanding that any new law should contain a power enabling regulations to set out circumstances in which the creation of hybrid and chimera embryos may be allowed under licence in the future. The Government’s proposal was in response to the need to update the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Act 1990 (“HFE Act 1990”), which did not specifically address the creation of animal-human hybrid or chimera embryos. The STC also considered such an inquiry to be urgent on the grounds that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (“HFEA”) was expecting imminent licence applications from a number of academic research organisations for licences falling within the area covered by the White Paper. In January 2007, the HFEA decided to defer consideration of such applications in light of the Government’s proposals.

The STC noted that there had been much progress in the area of embryology since the HFE Act 1990 came into force and revised legislation was now appropriate. In stark contrast to the White Paper however, the STC concluded that the creation of human-animal chimera or hybrid embryos (specifically cytoplasmic hybrid embryos) is both desirable and necessary for research into, for instance, the genetic basis of disease and the use of stem cells in future cell-based therapy. Such use could be of particular importance in drug discovery, thereby leading to a reduction in the use of animals for toxicity testing. The STC also stressed the importance of public education and understanding in this area of research, particularly in light of the profound ethical issues raised.

Despite concluding in favour of the creation of human-animal chimera and hybrid embryos, the STC remain of the view that development of such embryos past the 14 day stage should remain prohibited, as should the possibility of implanting such embryos into a woman. Finally the STC was critical of both the HFEA for delaying consideration of the licence applications to create cytoplasmic hybrid embryos, and the Government for inadequately setting out the research areas intended to be covered by the White Paper proposals.

The full STC report can be found at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmsctech/272/272i.pdf

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