UK developments in human embryo research

8 April 2008

The UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced a compromise whereby Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) will be permitted a free ‘conscience’ vote on selected elements on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill currently before Parliament (see previous news); however, they are expected to support the Bill as a whole and not block its progress (see Ananova news).

Following this decision, and with less than a month until the Bill is scheduled to reach the House of Commons, UK scientists announced that they had successfully created the first human-animal hybrid embryos (see BBC news). It has been stressed that results are only preliminary findings, and have yet to be subject to the normal peer-review process, but the researchers reported the successful creation of embryos from the fusion of bovine egg cells from which the genetic material had been removed with human genetic material, to create embryos that were (in genetic terms) 99.9 per cent human and 0.1 per cent cow. The embryos survived for three days in the laboratory, but it is hoped that this period can be extended to at least six days for optimal research conditions; the legal limit is fourteen days. Professor John Burn, Head of the Institute of Human Genetics at Newcastle University where the work was carried out commented: “Cells grown using animal eggs cannot be used to treat patients on safety grounds but they will help bring nearer the day when new stem cell therapies are available” (see press release).

Work involving the creation of hybrid embryos is regulated by the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which earlier this year granted licensed centres at Newcastle University and King's College London to create human admixed embryos as sources of embryonic stem cells for medical research purposes (see previous news).

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