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UK stem-cell research to benefit from hybrid embryos decision

Published on 10/09/07 at 04:08pm

A new ruling on the use of hybrid human-animal embryos could help UK researchers extend their lead over European rivals.

The hybrid cells could prove extremely useful to researchers, allowing them to produce larger quantities of embryos through a much simpler production process.

But the area remains ethically controversial, and the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) says it will consider each application to carry out studies individually.

The process involves transferring human DNA into animal eggs that have had almost all their genetic information removed. The resulting embryos will be more than 99% human, with a small animal component, making up around 0.1%.

Embryos are then grown in the lab for a few days and harvested for stem cells, which can then be used in ongoing research into diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases and motor neuron disease.

UK biotech leaders in stem cell research welcomed the news.

John Sinden, Chief Scientific Officer at UK stem-cell specialists ReNeuron backed the HFEA's approach. He said: "The decision to allow the use of hybrid embryos to compensate for the lack of human ones available is morally defensible - it means studies can avoid using and destroying wholly human embryos.

"From a pharma point of view, the practical decision will eventually enable scientists to create and study cell models of transgenic embryos suffering from specific diseases. Lots of people have fundamental moral objections to the idea of an animal-human hybrid, but that is not what's happening here. The cells will be research tools, and nothing more."

A pan-European agreement?

Legislation and attitudes relating to research on embryos differ greatly across Europe. For instance, some projects which would be legal in the UK or Sweden are banned in Germany and carry a three-year prison sentence for anyone breaking the law.

For the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, the variation is confusing and tricky to negotiate, with centres in some countries banned from partaking in important studies while others are free to conduct research.

In April this year, 16 countries were represented at the workshop on The Ethical Aspects of Stem Cell Research in Europe. It was organised by bodies Eurostemcell and Estools to review the various national legislations and discuss how a wider framework for stem cell study could be interpreted.

In Germany, the Stem Cell Act of June 2002 prohibited, as a general principle, the import and use of embryonic stem cell (ESCs). Without necessary authorisation, such activity could end in criminal punishment, even in the event that a researcher joins a research project outside Germany. The Italian government had no official position on the legality of the research, though Italian law prohibits any research or clinical trial involving a human embryo not aimed at protecting it. As a result, any activity with ESC could be interpreted as illegal.

The EU Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine requires adequate protection of embryos in research and is a framework for additional protocols. Professor Peter Andrews, co-ordinator of Estools consortium said: "Despite common funding of the European Commission, current legislation means that scientists within Europe cannot freely exchange personnel and cell lines. This has huge consequences for stem-cell research in Europe, limiting the ability of researchers with different expertise in different countries to work together for the common good."

The ethical debate continues to block wider research in the field, but even if research is successful, there is still the obstacle of cost. Companies will have to recoup R&D costs, but large profits could come from cell therapy for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, as there are enough patients to be treated each year, even if only treated once.



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