May 19, 2008

Britain Votes Against Banning Hybrid Embryos

The British Parliament has voted down a ban on the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos. In a 336 to 176 vote against the ban, the MPs sided with Prime Minister Gordon Brown that such embryos were a "moral endeavor" that could save thousands of lives.

Tory ex-minister Edward Leigh had argued in favor of the ban, saying the creation of the hybrid embryos was "a step too far" and that there was "no evidence yet to substantiate" claims the embryos could lead to treatment for degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

The MPs will vote on a series of reforms that would update Britain's embryology laws to reflect current scientific advancements. The measures, part of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill, will be voted on in the House of Commons over the next two days.

Mr. Leigh had led the fight against the creation of hybrid "admixed" embryos, claiming it was "ethically wrong and almost certainly medically useless".

"In embryos, we do have the genetic make up of a complete human being and we should not be spliced together with the animal kingdom," he told BBC News.

The bill would permit regulated research with hybrid or "admix" embryos, in which the nuclei of a human cell are inserted into an animal egg, resulting in an embryo that would be kept for up to two weeks to harvest stem cells.

However, according to Leigh, "We do not believe that regulation is enough. We believe this is a step too far and therefore should be banned."

"In embryos, we do have the genetic make up of a complete human being and we could not and should not be spliced together with the animal kingdom."

Britain's Ex-Labor minister Sir Gerald Kaufman agrees with Leigh. 

"How far do you go? Where do you stop? What are the limits and what are the boundaries?  If you permit the creation of hybrid embryos now, what will you seek to permit next time, even if you have no idea where it will lead," he told BBC News.

But Labor's Chris Bryant, a former Anglican curate, argued against Mr. Leigh's claims, saying they were similar to those used by church leaders against the smallpox vaccine.

"They were wrong and I think you are wrong today," he told BBC News.

Evan Harris, a liberal Democrat, also criticized those who argued the hybrid embryos were too human.

"If it's ethically acceptable to use up and destroy fully human embryos with all the potential they have, how is it right to provide for hybrid embryos, with less potential of viability, greater protection?" he said.

A separate attempt to ban "pure" hybrid embryos that would mix a human egg with animal sperm or vice versa, was also voted down by a 286 to 223 vote in the Commons.

Mark Simmonds, the Tory shadow health minister, told the MPs that some scientists had "serious reservations" about hybrids that weren't always at the "human end of the spectrum".

But Health Minister Dawn Primarolo said any research performed with human embryos "must satisfy the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, that it's necessary or desirable" for legal research purposes.

"This research is giving the scientists the ability, within clear boundaries within which to advance technologies that can help in the development of treatments for devastating, degenerative diseases, for infertility and learning," she told BBC News, adding that no human "admix" embryo would be implanted into a woman or animal.

MPs will vote on a total of four contentious provisions of the bill amid warnings that some Catholic MPs and cabinet ministers were ready to revolt.

The remaining provisions are:

-- Savior siblings: These are babies born from embryos selected as a tissue match for a sibling with a genetic condition.  The debate and vote on this provision will take place Monday.
-- Father's role in fertility treatment: This provision would end the requirement for IVF clinics to consider the "welfare" of a child created with respect to their need for a father. The debate and vote on will take place Tuesday.
-- The upper limit for abortion: An amendment to cut from 24 weeks the time limit for abortions. Debate and vote on the amendment will take place Tuesday.

The Roman Catholic Church has declared the use of hybrid embryos "monstrous", saying it is immoral to interfere with life in this way. Catholic bishops in Britain and the Irish Republic have donated £25,000 to researchers using adult stem cells.  These cells are considered less controversial than immature ones, and can be used to create skin, brain, heart and other tissue for treating illnesses.

Both Prime Minister Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron support the use of hybrid embryos to develop treatments for cancer and other conditions like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. They also support the creation of "savior siblings" selected by parents to create tissue material for seriously ill siblings.

Leading medical research organizations, such as Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council, have put forth an open letter urging MPs to support the research, saying the "understanding and treatment of diseases must not be closed down".

Last month, scientists at Britain's Newcastle University reported that they had created the first animal-human hybrid embryo in the UK by injecting DNA derived from human skin cells into eggs taken from cows' ovaries that had their genetic material removed. Scientists say these human-animal "admixed" embryos could help address the lack of human eggs from which to generate embryos.

If the MPs approve the provisions of the new bill, the legislation could go into place next year.