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Who’s afraid of ‘Frankenbunnies’?

Scientists should vigorously oppose the UK authorities' clampdown on research involving 'hybrid' embryos.

John Gillott

Topics Science & Tech

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In the run-up to Christmas, the UK government published a White Paper titled Review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. It attracted limited press attention at the time. However, one proposal in it – to ban the creation of ‘hybrid’ embryos under any circumstances, including for research purposes – hit the headlines at the end of last week. One of the scientists interested in pursuing this work seems to have been warned by the regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), that in the light of the government’s proposals it was unlikely that the HFEA would approve his application when it is considered at its meeting this week.

The scientists were deeply annoyed – and rightly so. Following lobbying both in the press and behind the scenes, the situation is unclear once again. Prime minister Tony Blair appeared to suggest that perhaps the work would be allowed after all, stating that any new law would have ‘flexibility’ to support scientific research that helped people, adding: ‘I’m sure that research that’s really going to save lives and improve the quality of life will be able to go forward.’ (1)

In a recent article on spiked, I outlined the background to the work and the debate on this issue (see Stemming scientific endeavour, by John Gillott). It has been legal for several years now in the UK to carry out what is called ‘therapeutic cloning’ research using human material. A cell from a living person is transferred into a human egg cell that has had its own nuclear genetic material removed. This same technique was used to create the live cloned sheep ‘Dolly’, born in the summer of 1996. In humans it is illegal in the UK to implant a cloned embryo in a woman or to attempt to develop a cloned embryo beyond 14 days in the laboratory. Rather, they are used for research, to study how to develop cloned human embryonic stem cell lines and in the study of specific human diseases, as well as for other purposes.

Scientists now propose to do similar research, but using a human cell nucleus and an animal egg cell – the cells of choice being rabbit and cow. The basic reason is simple: fresh human eggs are in short supply, whereas animal eggs are easily obtained. As one of the researchers who has applied for a license, Lyle Armstrong, put it: ‘I can easily get 200 eggs from a slaughterhouse in one day, which are going to be useful. With human eggs I am lucky to get two or three viable ones in a month.’ (2)

We will have to see what the draft bill contains when it is presented to parliament later in the year. But why on earth did the government propose to ban such work in the White Paper, when the rationale seems so straightforward? This same issue was debated at the end of last year in the Australian parliament. It decided to allow human therapeutic cloning, including the use of eggs from aborted fetuses – but it decided to ban hybrid embryos. One specific argument was put forward, an animal welfare one: that taking eggs from animals would be harmful to them. This rather bizarre notion (the slaughterhouse setting is the giveaway) was passed over without debate, and in fact the ban was enacted without being put to the vote. All present seemed to sense they were dealing with something fairly intangible and emotive. The UK government gives no reasons for its proposed ban in the White Paper beyond stating that public opinion is against the idea.

Taking account of public opinion is a reasonable thing to do, but it is also a copout – firstly because the government should say whether, and if so why, it agrees with public opinion; and secondly because opposition should be tested rather than accepted at face value. The fact is that public opinion in this area has not been interrogated. The details of the work, its real character and import have not been explained: a simple poll or analysis of responses to a consultation is not a sane way to decide what can and cannot be done in science.

But there is more at work than the government simply reflecting what the public might think, or even the government running scared of ‘Frankenbunny’ headlines in the red-top newspapers as has been suggested by some commentators. For a number of years now, the government has positively cultivated the existing notion that this area of research is ethically sensitive, and that the government and the regulator (the HFEA) are the watchdogs for society, on hand to restrain science where necessary, and keen to ensure that the public’s fears are taken seriously; that a broad consensus is built around what is and isn’t acceptable. Often, ‘public concerns’ are cited by government officials who are themselves uncertain about certain areas of research; they are effectively hiding their own doubts behind the spectre of public fear.

Unfortunately, it is not only the government that has taken this approach. Some scientists have also. In 2000, an Expert Group chaired by the UK’s chief medical officer and including the chief scientist recommended a ban on the creation of hybrid embryos for the same reasons that the government does in the White Paper: ‘The Expert Group concluded that the use of eggs from a non-human species to carry a human cell nucleus was not a realistic or desirable solution to the possible lack of human eggs for research or subsequent treatment.’ (3) Worse still perhaps, there was no public opposition to this proposal from any interested scientists at the time.

The freedom to conduct open-ended inquiry, to discover new things, should be the principle on which all research is conducted. But support for this, especially in a controversial area such as human reproduction, has to be won in the political arena. It is, ultimately, subject to a democratic decision. Faced with public unease and hostile lobby groups, the temptation is to hype the medical potential of the research, to provide a counter-weight. I fear that is what some of the scientists are doing now, even making allowances, of course, for the way certain quotes are used in news stories. Professor Chris Shaw, who is preparing an application to the HFEA with Ian Wilmut (the leader of the team that made Dolly the sheep), has stated: ‘There are hundreds of thousands of patients in Britain with degenerative neurological conditions. We can use these cell lines to study them, and to see if drugs are going to be effective. To shut that down is a real affront to patients who are desperate for therapy. Of all these diseases none [is] really treatable. This is a very serious turning point in terms of science and medicine.’ (4)

Shaw could be right of course, but there are many other scientists who are more cautious. Come debate in parliament these other voices will be quoted. The potential for accusations of shroud waving is obvious, and not unfounded. Far better to state that this is one of several potentially useful lines of research, which should be supported as such, without hyping it up. This should be coupled with explanations of the work for the public and parliamentarians, and a forthright challenge to hostile lobbyists. In particular, scientists should give their honest opinion on the ethics of the work. If researchers do not see any problem with the work, such that it does not require a therapeutic rationale to counter-balance the harm some think it causes, as I very much hope and suspect many of them do, they should say so. We might at last get a more substantial and honest debate in this area.

In addition to detailing his views on the therapeutic potential of the work, Professor Shaw has also been quoted as saying: ‘This is just cells, just for science. No animal is ever going to be created.’ (5) Quite right. Can the public be persuaded to view it that way? There’s every chance they can, if the attempt is made.

John Gillott is co-author of Science and the Retreat from Reason and a freelance writer.

(1) Hybrid embryo work “under threat”, BBC News, 5 January 2007

(2) Cloning ‘can beat disease’, The Times, 5 January 2007

(3) Stem Cell Research: Medical Progress with Responsibility, Department of Health, p. 31

(4) Medicine faces ban on rabbit-human embryos, The Times, 5 January 2007

(5) Why are ministers opposed to hybrids?, BBC News, 5 January 2007

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Topics Science & Tech

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