Scientist keen to dispel fears of hybrid embryos

April 10, 2008

Stephen Minger was in China on business when he heard the news last week that human-animal hybrid embryos had been created for the first time in the UK.

The team that did the work, which is based at Newcastle University, and Dr Minger's team at King's College London, are the only two groups to have been granted licences to create such embryos under current legislation.

"They are up and running, which is great," he said, denying there was any competition. Indeed, for Dr Minger, both groups have a much more pressing issue: ensuring that each is able to continue their work in the long run.

The British breakthrough comes amid heated debate over the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Due to pass through Parliament next month, it technically could - if MPs who have been given a free vote on certain aspects so decide - ban future work on human-animal hybrid embryos.

"I don't know (whether the work is in real jeopardy), but I don't think anyone is taking any chances," Dr Minger said.

The plan in the coming weeks is to spend "a lot of time" engaging with everyone, from MPs to the Catholic Church to the public, to make it clear what the science involved is and why it is needed, Dr Minger said.

"I think (some people) think we are actually taking human and animal sex cells and trying to make something that is a true chimera ... there has been some very inflammatory language," Dr Minger said. The leader of Scotland's Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, has described the Bill as "monstrous".

In reality, the professor said, the hybrid embryos are derived purely for research and are not allowed to develop beyond 14 days. Researchers take only an empty animal egg and inject human DNA into it. Stem cells are extracted from the embryos to be used in work into diseases.

The embryo, he said, is "categorically human", as has been concluded by both the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and MPs on the Science Select Committee, and the technique removes the need to use human eggs, which are in short supply and invasive to extract.

Dr Minger said: "I am fairly confident that at the end of the day most average people will look at this and say: 'Well it is kind of weird, but if it is going to lead to new developments and it is tightly regulated and we know where the boundaries are, then it is permissible research.'"

He added: "This is responsible science. It has been through a consultation and select committee investigation, has huge support from the scientific community and from patient charities, and has potential to provide us with new research tools that we don't have."

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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