Monday, January 21, 2008

UK will allow human-animal hybrids for stem cell research

On January 17, the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) granted two universities 1-year licenses to pursue the development of human-animal embryos for research purposes. This is a reversal of prior policy, which banned such transgenic experimentation.

The ultimate aim of this work will be to develop personalized stem cells that can be used to cure disease. The researchers will clone individuals with serious illnesses by inserting their DNA into enucleated cow and rabbit eggs, resulting in hybrid embryos from which stem cells can be extracted. The hybrid embryos are to be destroyed no later than 14 days after they are created. It is hoped that using patients' own DNA in this process will reduce (or, better still, eliminate) the risk of transplant rejection (graft vs. host disease) when the stem cells, or organs grown from them, are implanted in the patient's body.

The UK's approach sidesteps at least two issues that have been problematic for scientists in the US: (1) the destruction of human embryos question (because they're hybrids, not solely human), and (2) the problem of gathering a sufficient number of donated human ova for research purposes. It's at least a little bit interesting to note that public opinion in the UK generally favors this approach, even as the rejection of genetically modified "Frankenfoods" continues to be reported in the news there.

However, US opinion has been quite strongly against such transgenic experimentation, generally because of concerns of developing chimeras with human (or human-like) consciousness. Additionally, the requirement that the chimera embryos be destroyed within 14 days of creation is probably pretty close to unenforceable-which gives rise to the kinds of nightmare scenarios Margaret Atwood contemplated in Oryx & Crake ("baby orchards" for organ transplants).*

So: Does the HFEA's approach create more problems than it solves? Talk amongst yourselves.

News here: The Guardian, Financial Times

*And yes, that's another WBP Book Club selection! Go here for more info.

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