19/05/2008

MP's To Vote On Human-Animal Embryo Research

The Commons is to vote on controversial plans for research to be carried out using human-animal embryos today which could mark a turning point in medicine.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown is backing the measures saying it could save "millions of lives".

In the Observer newspaper, Mr Brown said that "we owe it to ourselves and future generations" to allow scientists to use properly regulated stem cell research.

"Let me be clear," he said. "If we want to sustain stem cell research and bring new cures and treatments to millions of people, I believe admixed embryos are necessary. The question for me is not whether they should exist, but how their use should be controlled," he said.

The Department of Health states that the Government has announced that £100 million will be made available for UK stem cell research over the next two years to help develop treatments for devastating illness and medical conditions for which there is currently no cure such as chronic heart disease and Parkinson's.

The Human Fertility and Embryology Bill - an amendment of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 - will include provision for research on different types of embryos and propose changes to definitions of legal parenthood for cases involving assisted reproduction.

The Bill would allow the nuclei of a human cell to be inserted into an animal egg - cytoplasmic hyrbrid embryos - the resulting 'cybrid embryos' would be kept for up to 14 days to harvest stem cells. True hybrid embryos are created by the fusion of human and animal sperm and eggs.

The Bill - if it is passed - is also likely to change abortion law reducing the upper limit from 24 weeks to 22, 20 or even 16 weeks.

In January, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority said in a statement: "During the development of an embryo, cellular differentiation begins and the research proposed in this application provides new models to explore and learn more of this process.

"This research will also extend our knowledge of the above processes and hence, will in the longer term, inform our understanding of the moleculare and cellular events involved in disease processes."

However, the Catholic Church is standing firm against the measures believing that the use of hybrid embryos is "monstrous". Some critics have also branded the proposed research as "Frankenstein science".

A discussion of the ethical and moral implications of allowing such research to go ahead was held at the Wellcome Collection in London on Friday - sponsored by Archbishop Peter Smith and Professor Colin Blakemore.

Archbishop Smith said: "While we all seek to relieve suffering and pain, the science and ethics of what we are now capable of is both challenging and complex.

"While there may not be complete agreement on the ethical parameters, discussing the issues in this way is both useful and constructive."

Professor Blakemore added: "This conversation was not about scientists challenging the spiritual leadership of Clergy, it was about creating a fuller dialogue between researchers and faith leaders which could help each group to understand the intentions and aspirations of the others.

"A polarisation of the debate on stem cells serves no-one, especially the patients who hope to benefit from such research."

(DS)


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