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In Britain, there has been fierce opposition from some church and ethics groups to the idea of creating hybrid human animal embryos. But today, British regulators still decided - at least in principle - to allow it. The embryos would be used for research into degenerative diseases.
NPR's Rob Gifford is in London.
ROB GIFFORD: Two teams of British scientists had applied to Britain's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority or H.F.E.A. They wanted permission to create what are known in Britain as cytoplastic hybrids, or cybrids, in order to overcome a shortage of donated human eggs.
The process involves injecting human DNA into an animal egg cell from which the nucleus has been removed. Researchers hope to use the hybrid embryos, which must be destroyed after 14 days to create stem cells, which can then be used to help find new medical treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Lou Gherig's disease.
The chief executive of the HFEA, Angela McNabb, says the legal and ethical pros and cons were weighed very carefully.
Ms. ANGELA McNABB (Chief Executive, Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority): We've been able to weigh the results and take what's very strong decision where we're saying we can move forward with cytoplasmic hybrid embryos and the creation of those in some research, so we can gain the potential benefits, but only in the framework of very strong regulation.
GIFFORD: Scientists have said they understand that the idea of the process, which will create a hybrid embryo that is 99.9 percent human and 0.1 percent animal, might be shocking to some people.
But Dr. Stephen Minger of King's College London said the public should not be too alarmed.
Dr. STEPHEN MINGER (Stem Cell Expert, King's College London): What we do when we take an animal egg is we remove the nucleus from the egg. We remove not only the genetic identity but we remove the species identity. What makes a cow egg a cow is its nuclear DNA. And we take that out — it's no longer a cow.
GIFFORD: The regulators' consultation included an opinion poll of more than 2,000 British people. The survey found people supported the creation of the kind of hybrid embryos proposed by the two research teams — but only when they were given a reason for the experiments.
Sixty-one percent of those asked gave their backing if the hybrids would help understand some diseases. That support fell to 35 percent if the hybrids were being created purely for nonspecific research.
But Dr. Helen Watt, a medical ethicist at the Catholic organization called the Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics, told the BBC the move is wrong and immoral.
Dr. HELEN WATT (Director, Linacre Center for Healthcare Ethics): If we're looking at a model for studying disease, these embryos will be highly abnormal. There's a limit to how much we're going to be able to learn from embryos containing animal material in this way. In any case, there are ways of doing science that respects both human life and human dignity. In these experiments, we not only risk creating a genuine human embryo who has no human parents and who has a nonhuman partial mother, but we also offend against human dignity by entering into animal reproduction.
GIFFORD: The HFEA deferred a decision on other types of human-animal embryos, such as what are known as true hybrids created by the fusion of a human sperm and an animal egg and so-called human chimeras, where human cells are injected into animal embryos whose cells still contain animal nuclei. They said there was no evidence that British scientists are, at present, considering using such hybrids in their research.
Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.
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