Germany rules on ethics of human-animal hybrids

1 October 2011

The German Ethics Council has issued recommendations on the use of animals containing human material (ACHM).
The report on this issue reportedly takes an in-depth and philosophical view of what counts as human and which genetic alterations involving animal material constitute a violation of human dignity, in comparison with the recent report from the UK Academy of Medical Sciences on the same issue (see previous news), which was more concerned with public acceptability.
The panel behind the recommendations came to broadly similar conclusions as the UK group, distinguishing between standard research applications such as the use of transgenic mice containing human genes, which is considered acceptable, unethical practices requiring complete prohibition, and intermediate scenarios requiring regulatory oversight.
However, the German recommendations include a complete ban on fertilisation involving human eggs or sperm in an animal, which the UK group cited as an example of something that would have to be considered by the regulator. The German council also recommended prohibition of any introduction of animal material to the human germline or implantation of an animal embryo in a human.
No consensus was reached on the creation of human-animal chimeric embryos produced by insertion of a human cell nucleus into an animal egg cell with the nucleus removed, a technique that is permitted in the UK subject to regulatory approval and licensing (see previous news). Just over half the council were in favour of allowing this approach, despite German law forbidding research that harms human embryos.

Comment: Whilst Germany is typically very conservative in ethical terms, these new recommendations appear relatively liberal. One council member reportedly commented that the report strikes a fair balance between public accountability and burdening scientists with too many bureaucratic hurdles’. 

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