Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report

1  Introduction

Motivation for this inquiry

1. On 14 December 2006 the Government published its proposals for revision of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act (Cm 6989), including proposals aimed at clarifying Government policy on the creation of human-animal hybrid or chimera embryos. The White Paper explained that the Government had found that the current law does not refer to more novel processes of embryo creation that have been developed since the 1990 HFE Act was passed, and which, in theory, could be used to create embryos combining human and animal material. The Government proposed to clarify the extent to which the law applies to such entities, but also to prohibit their creation, whilst leaving the door open at some future unspecified date to regulate for circumstances in which they may be allowed under licence.

2. The Science and Technology Select Committee has long been an involved participant in debates regarding the use of human reproductive technologies in research, as demonstrated by the previous Committee's 2005 report into Human Reproductive Technologies and the Law.[1] We followed up this Report in the current Parliament by taking evidence from the Minister for Public Health, Caroline Flint MP, on how the Government intended to take forward regulation in this area, and were therefore interested in the Government proposals for revision of the HFE Act. The proposed policy on the creation of embryos containing human and animal material for research (human-animal chimera or hybrid embryos) struck us, in particular, as being at odds with the recommendations of the Committee in the last Parliament.

3. Coincidentally, we had been aware for some time that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) was anticipating applications from researchers from King's College London and Newcastle University for licences covering an area of research which would fall within the remit of the Government's proposed legislation. Soon after the publication of the Government's proposals for future legislation, the HFEA decided in mid-January 2007 to defer consideration of the licence applications, pending the outcome of a major public consultation on the creation of human-animal hybrid and chimera embryos for research purposes. It was these two threads - the general Government proposals and the specific research applications - which combined to make a compelling case for an urgent Committee inquiry.


4. We recognise that it is essential from the outset to be absolutely clear in our use of terminology in discussing these issues. The Government's proposals cover 'hybrid' and 'chimera' embryos. The entities envisaged in the proposals from the two groups of researchers have attracted various names. The Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir David King, has argued that these should not be described as either chimeras or hybrids. In the course of our inquiry, Professor Shaw of King's College London referred to such entities as 'pseudo-hybrids';[2] Dr Lyle Armstrong of Newcastle University told us that "we, in our research group, refer to them as "interspecies embryos";[3] and Professor Austin Smith of the University of Cambridge thought that they would be better termed 'cybrids'.[4] In this Report, we have decided to follow the example of Sir David King and use the term 'cytoplasmic hybrid embryo' to describe what would result from the proposals to create embryos through somatic cell nuclear transfer of human genetic material into animal ova from which the main source of genetic material has been previously removed. The term 'cytoplasmic hybrid embryo' will be used to describe such entities throughout the remainder of this Report.

The inquiry

5. We launched our inquiry on 10 January 2007, with terms of reference intended to reflect the Committee's interest not only in the current Government proposals, but in the impact of these proposals on UK science.[5] The inquiry was to focus upon the appropriateness of the proposals for legislation of the creation of human-animal chimera or hybrid embryos for research purposes, as set out in the Government's recent White Paper, Review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act: Proposals for revised legislation (including establishment of the Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos) (Cm 6989) and on the impact of these proposals upon stem cell research in the UK.[6]

6. The briefing which accompanied the announcement of the draft Human Tissues and Embryology Bill in the Queen's Speech indicated that the Bill would be introduced in mid-March and sent to a joint Committee of both Houses for pre-legislative scrutiny. The date for its appearance has since been revised to May 2007.[7] Since we were keen that our inquiry should be useful in informing the preparation of the draft Bill, it was essential that we conducted and reported on this inquiry as rapidly as our need for thoroughness would allow. Consequently, we announced the inquiry immediately (in January 2007) and were obliged to give short deadlines with regard to receiving submissions of written evidence and limited notice to those witnesses required for oral evidence sessions. We appreciate that some difficulties may have been caused by our tight deadlines and are most grateful for the efforts of all contributors to work within the necessary timescale. In particular, we would like to place on record our thanks to the secretariat of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority which has responded to our many requests for information efficiently and promptly.

7. We held a private seminar at the start of the inquiry to enable us to learn more about the scientific issues surrounding the subject area from: Professor Ian Wilmut FRS (University of Edinburgh), Dr Stephen Minger (King's College London) and Dr Justin St. John (Birmingham University). We later visited the facilities for stem cell research at Dr Minger's laboratory. An informal meeting was also held with Professor Hui Z. Sheng, Professor in developmental biology at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, School of Medicine and Dr Robin Lovell-Badge, the National Institute for Medical Research, UK. We are particularly grateful to Professor Sheng for discussing her own research in this area so frankly and for giving us her informed views on the UK regulatory structures, as well as on the science.

8. We held three oral evidence sessions, during which we heard from the following:

  • Dr Lyle Armstrong from the Institute of Human Genetics, Newcastle University, Professor Chris Shaw of the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London and Professor Austin Smith, Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research, University of Cambridge.
  • Ms Shirley Harrison, Chair of the HFEA, Angela McNab, Chief Executive of the HFEA and Professor Neva Haites, a Member of the HFEA.
  • Dr David King, Human Genetics Alert, Dr Calum MacKellar, Director of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics and The Right Reverend Dr Lee Rayfield, Bishop of Swindon, representing the Church of England.
  • Mr Simon Denegri from the Association of Medical Research Charities and
    Professor Raanon Gillon, Emeritus Professor of Medical Ethics at Imperial College London and former editor of the Journal of Bioethics.
  • Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council, Professor Martin Bobrow, Deputy Chairman of the Wellcome Trust and Mr David Macauley, Chief Executive of the UK Stem Cells Foundation.
  • Caroline Flint MP, Minister of State for Public Health, Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer and Mr Mark Bale, Deputy-Director of Scientific Development and Bioethics at the Department of Health.

The transcripts of these sessions are published with this Report, together with the written submissions received in response to our call for evidence and requests for supplementary information.

9. Finally, we held an additional public seminar to explore the wider issues raised by the inquiry with: Professor Sir David King, Government Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Lord Winston, Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies, Imperial College, London, The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Chairman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority Law and Ethics Committee, the writer AN Wilson and Dr David Jones, Academic Director of the School of Theology, Philosophy, and History at St Mary's University College, Twickenham. This is the first occasion upon which we have held such an event and we found it to be of great value in our deliberations.

10. We are grateful to all who contributed to this inquiry. We would like to place on record our thanks to our specialist adviser in law and ethics, Professor Roger Brownsword, King's College London, and in scientific issues surrounding the inquiry, Dr Valerie Wilson, University of Edinburgh. We also received valuable assistance from the Scrutiny Unit and Legal Services Office in the House of Commons in the course of this inquiry.

1   House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, Second Report of Session 2006-07, Human Reproductive Technologies and the Law, HC 67-I Back

2   Q 14 Back

3   Q 5 Back

4   Q 15 Back

5   Press release No. 11 of session 2006-07,  Back

6   Government proposals for the regulation of hybrid and chimera embryos ,terms of reference, Back

7   Q 338 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 5 April 2007