Embryology Bill controversy

Behind the Headlines

Wednesday March 26 2008

Picture of IVF treatment

"Monstrous" or "just for science"?

“Bishop’s Frankenstein attack” and “Cardinal attacks monstrous human embryo Bill”, screamed some of the newspaper headlines about the controversy over an update of the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.


What’s the row about?

The Bill contains several clauses aimed at updating existing laws on fertility treatment and embryo research in line with some of the advances in science and changes in attitudes in recent years. Stem cell research using embryos is already legal in the UK but the Bill would allow research using “human admixed embryos” (also called “inter-species embryos”) that contain both human and animal material.



Why the controversy?

Critics say the Bill is tampering with nature and is unethical. Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the head of the Scottish Catholic church, said: “This Bill represents a monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life.” Supporters of the new proposals say the objections are founded on misinformation. Professor Chris Shaw, of Kings College London, said: "We think there is nothing illegal, immoral or unethical about this. People think we are generating some sort of hybrid animal. This is just cells, just for science. No animal is ever going to be created.”



Isn’t stem cell research already legal?

It is. However, stem cell research and cell nuclear replacement research is legal under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. This means that research involving early embryos is no longer limited to the area of reproduction but can be applied to any disease or condition. Any such investigations, however, are carefully regulated. The Act put in place is a safeguard and is intended to prevent the abuse of such research as reproductive cloning. It remains illegal to implant human–animal embryos in the womb or bring them to term.



What are embryonic stem cells?

Most adult cells in the body perform specific functions that cannot be changed. Embryonic stem cells are different in that they are still at an early stage of development, and retain the potential to turn into many different types of cell. By harnessing this ability, scientists believe it should be possible to use stem cells to ‘repair’ different parts of the body. At the stage of development that they are used for research, the embryos are no more than a microscopic ball of cells. However, opponents of embryo research argue embryos are a human being with a soul regardless of their stage of development.



What is a human admixed embryo?

Admixed embryo is the term used for an embryo containing both human and animal material, such as cytoplasmic hybrids or ‘cybrids’. Cybrids are formed by inserting DNA from human cells into animal eggs that have had almost all of their genetic information removed.



Why use animal eggs? 

Supporters of the Bill say using animal eggs is considered more pragmatic and less controversial than asking women to donate their eggs for research, as this is an invasive procedure of no benefit to the donor. They say there is an endless supply of animal eggs available from the livestock industry.



How is the cybrid produced?

An egg is removed from the animal, say a rabbit or cow. The nucleus containing almost all genetic information is removed from the egg. Human nuclei are inserted into the ‘empty’ egg. These cells are now 99.9% human. An electric charge then stimulates cell division inside the egg. The stem cells are studied for no more than 14 days in a laboratory to understand how cells from a diseased patient differ from a healthy one.



Why do scientists want to make cybrids?

Scientists want to use cybrids to study disease. These embryos can be made from the DNA of patients with conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other degenerative diseases. The cells can then be used to investigate how these conditions progress and to develop new treatments.



Will the Bill become law?

The Bill received its first reading in the House of Commons in February, and while no date has been set for its second reading – or approval in principle – it is viewed as a key piece of legislation on the government's agenda.


Analysis by NHS Choices

Edited by NHS Choices


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