Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 12

Submission from the Institute of Biology


  1.  We commend this inquiry as a timely response to a fast-evolving field of scientific and social importance. We believe that the Government should permit, under licence, the creation of interspecific (sometimes misleadingly called hybrid or chimera) embryos in vitro for the purpose of research. We suggest that the creation and use of such embryos should be subject to the same legal limits, regulation and strict licensing that applies to research on human embryos. These conditions would provide sufficient safeguard against inappropriate or premature application of techniques and procedures on human material, while permitting research which has the potential to deliver significant benefits to human health.


  2.  The Institute of Biology (IOB) is an independent and charitable body charged by Royal Charter to further the study and application of the UK's biology and allied biosciences. It has 14,000 members and over 50 specialist learned Affiliated Societies.


  3.  The category of interspecific embryos of particular interest to this inquiry is produced by uniting eggs from one species (often a cow or rabbit) that have been deprived of almost all their genes with a cell taken from an individual of a different species (humans, in the case of this inquiry). The resulting interspecific embryo corresponds genetically almost entirely to the species contributing the cell rather than the egg. That it does not do so precisely is because an additional very small set of genes exists in mitochondria that are widely dispersed in every type of cell. Since mitochondria are much more numerous in eggs than in other types of cell, the interspecific embryos will initially have the mitochondrial characteristics of the egg rather than the cell donor species. Over time, in cell lines derived from such embryos, the egg's mitochondria are gradually replaced by the (human) cell's mitochondria.

  4.  This type of interspecific embryo is of particular interest in offering a possible solution to the severe shortage of human eggs for research.

  5.  Another type of embryo, interspecies chimeras are the product of combination of intact embryonic or other cells from two different species. Making chimeras by injecting embryonic stem cells into blastocyst stage embryos is presently the only way of establishing conclusively whether they are normal, and are therefore safe to transplant into patients. Since it would be ethically unacceptable to produce such chimaeras in humans, critically testing the normality of human embryonic stem cells may depend on injecting them into blastocysts of other species, unless other reliable assays can be devised.


  6.  The Institute of Biology recommends that research on interspecific embryos in vitro should be allowed, provided that it is regulated and licensed in the same way as research on human embryos, and is subject to the same stringent scrutiny and controls.

  7.  According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990), a licence for research cannot authorise any activity unless it appears to the regulatory authority to be necessary or desirable for a purpose specified in the relevant regulations of the Act. Moreover, granting of such a licence requires that the HFEA is satisfied that any proposed use of embryos is necessary for the purposes of the research. These conditions would provide sufficient safeguard against inappropriate or premature use of such novel techniques and procedures on human material to make it unnecessary to prohibit them through legislation.

  8.  It is important that research is regulated and carried out in a manner that earns public confidence and support. We recognise that there are legitimate ethical concerns about this area of research, and believe that policy makers should seek and consider diverse views when developing legislation in this area. We therefore welcome the forthcoming consultation announced recently by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

  9.  No general agreement has been reached on what to call this type of embryo, but it is often referred to incorrectly and misleadingly as a "hybrid". Terminology is important. We recommend that a new name is coined for this type of embryo, which is neither a hybrid (where the egg of one species is fertilised by the sperm of another, eg mules) nor a chimera (which combines whole cells from two different species). Both the terms, hybrid and chimera, are emotive and inaccurate.

  10.  The committee should note that it will be necessary to consider how to test whether human embryonic stem cells are normal before they could be used for human therapy in the future. At present, chimeras are likely to be the best test (see paragraph 5).

  11.  Public support for this type of research requires scientists to act ethically and to be willing to understand and address people's concerns and explain the reasons, benefits and alternatives to this research. The Institute of Biology requires all members to abide by a code of conduct, and we provide guidance on ethical codes of practice. As part of continuing professional development for chartered biologists, we also offer communications training.

  12.  Given the fast moving nature of this area of research, the legislation and regulation should continue to be reviewed as necessary to take account of the new issues and opportunities that will arise.


What sort of research is being proposed?

  13.  Proposed research includes creating disease-specific cell lines from a number of individuals with different neurological diseases that have a known genetic basis, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and motor neurone disease (ie the patients will have one of several known genetic mutations that cause a given disease). Cell lines with these mutations can then be used both for basic research into the causes of these diseases, to identify and test possible drugs to treat these diseases, and might lead to possible genetic therapies.

  14.  For example, embryos may be formed by removing the nucleus from a cow egg, and fusing the emptied egg with an intact human cell from an individual with a given genetic defect which causes a particular neurological disease. The resulting embryo would only be used as a source of cells for research, and would not be grown for longer than the 14 day legal limit. The cells will contain a human nucleus, and human and cow mitochondria. As the cells divide, the cow mitochondria decrease in number since the nuclear genes required for forming cow mitochondria are lost in the enucleation step. This method has been shown to work using both cows and rabbits as a source of eggs.

Is this research necessary?

  15.  Because the procedure for creating this sort of interspecific cell line is currently very new and inefficient, it may require hundreds or even thousands of eggs to create each new cell line. Experience may improve procedures and efficiency.

  16.  Human eggs for research will always be in short supply and are often of poor quality. Good quality animal eggs are in plentiful supply, for example from abattoirs (where they would otherwise be discarded). The use of animal eggs will avoid the need to carry out potentially harmful and invasive procedures on human donors.

  17.  At the moment, the alternative methods for studying neurological diseases do not show the full range of human symptoms and may not offer hope of developing new treatments for these debilitating diseases. The proposed research using cell lines from human-animal interspecific embryos offers new tools for both basic research and drug screening. While not offering the prospect of effective treatments in the short term (nor any guarantee of therapies or cures), they should reduce the need for research on live animals as models for certain diseases, and will accelerate the pace of research since the cell lines will be deposited in the UK stem cell bank (as required by the HFEA licence procedure) and will therefore be freely available to researchers in universities and companies around the world.

  18.  It is important not to create false hopes that this research will produce cures for debilitating diseases. Cures are not guaranteed from any type of research, but the proposed research offers a good prospect of accelerating scientific progress in understanding these diseases and testing possible new therapies which could, in the future, improve the quality of life of people with different ailments.

  19.  So far, only a very limited number of investigations of the growth of embryos obtained by combining eggs of the cow or rabbit with animal or human cells have been undertaken. Questions remain about whether cell lines from these embryos really offer an appropriate alternative to those obtained either from "spare" human embryos or by combining human cells and eggs. Given that research on human-animal interspecific embryos has progressed significantly further than less medically relevant research on corresponding combinations between different animals, it seems unwarranted on strictly scientific grounds to prohibit it now.

January 2007

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