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Ban on hybrid embryos 'unacceptable', slams report

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MPs have warned that the UK government's proposed ban on hybrid embryos could damage UK science, and charged that it will restrict development of life-saving stem cell treatments.

The accusation comes from the Science and Technology Select Committee, which today published a report (pdf) on the regulation of hybrid and chimera embryos.

The report comes ahead of a draft bill, due to be published on 8 May, which the government has indicated will ban hybrid and chimera embryos. In November a lab at Newcastle University was first to apply to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for a licence to create human-bovine hybrid embryos in order to boost the supply of human stem cells for research.

The HFEA bowed to government pressure and put the application on hold, despite the Department of Trade and Industry's view that a ban "may damage the widespread international view that the UK has one of the best regulatory systems in relation to stem cell research."

Hybrid embryos are created using cloning techniques to insert adult human DNA into an empty animal egg. Opposition from within government has cited unspecific "public unease" over the technique, which has angered scientists, who say the embryos are already not allowed to develop beyond 14 days under law, and would be used to develop therapeutic techniques rather than treat patients. The Newcastle embryos would have been 99.9 per cent human, and 0.1 per cent bovine.

The push for prohibition comes from the Department of Health, which has cited a public consultation in which the majority said they were opposed to research using hybrid embryos. Similar public misgivings were voiced at the dawn of the era of transplant surgery in the 1960s.

Joining the committee's call for permissive licencing, Sir Richard Gardner, chairman of the Royal Society's stem cell working group, said: "The need to develop additional legislation for every new technique would stifle progress in this rapidly advancing field. It is imperative that the development of new scientific techniques is not hampered by heavy-handed legislation.

"We do not know what possibilities might emerge in the next five years so it is vital that new legislation can accommodate scientific breakthroughs."

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the British Medical Association's head of science and ethics said: "Given that the law already prevents such embryos being placed in a woman, and that the UK has a robust mechanism for regulating individual research projects, the BMA does not understand the government's current reservations on this issue."

The Guardian reports the Department of Health said: "Whilst we have proposed an initial ban in general terms, we recognise that there may be potential benefits from such research and are certainly not closing the door to it."

If a ban does become law, the fear is that the UK, which has been a leading centre of cloning and stem cell science, will suffer in a similar way to the US, where the Bush administration imposed a moratorium on federal funding of stem cell research in 2001. Bush recently stuck by the decision when he exercised his Congressional veto for the first time against a bill which would have lifted the ban. ®

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