Technology & Science

Brits approve human-animal embryo research

British regulators have agreed to allow human-animal embryos to be created and used for research.

Cloning technique banned in Canada

After months of consultation, British regulators have agreed in principle to allow human-animal embryos to be created and used for research.

"Having looked at all the evidence the Authority has decided that there is no fundamental reason to prevent cytoplasmic hybrid research," the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority said in its decision Wednesday.

"However, public opinion is very finely divided with people generally opposed to this research unless it is tightly regulated and it is likely to lead to scientific or medical advancements. This is not a total green light for cytoplasmic hybrid research, but recognition that this area of research can, with caution and careful scrutiny, be permitted."

The ruling is expected to create further controversy about stem cell research, which critics view as a destruction of human life.

The HFEA-sanctioned research would allow thefusion of human-animal embryos, also known as chimeras, to create stem cells.

Stem cells are transmutable, meaning they can be turned into any type of cell. They are used in the treatment of various diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's,to regenerate tissues.

The research focuses on a specific aspect of chimerism that would involve removing the nucleus from animal egg cells and replacing it with human DNA. Scientists would thenlet the cells to divide for two weeks into about 200 cells and extract stem cells at that time.

Canada opposed to hybrid embryos

"There's nothing like this in Canada," Mick Bhatia, the scientific director of McMaster University's cancer and stem cell biology institute in Hamilton, Ont., told"We're falling so far behind because we don't even have a process in place."

He said he would like to seeCanada develop a regulatory body such as the HFEA to push the process forward and to "reach certain milestones on this."

Canada, Australiaand the U.S. currently ban the creation of human-animal embryos. However, while in Canada the research is banned outright, the U.S. has only banned federal funding for it, leaving the door open to private-sector and state fundingfor stem cell research, Bhatia said.

"This isn't an academic spanking," Bhatia said of possible Canadian penalties for breaking the ban. "You're put in jail."

It's a critical difference that's allowing U.S. researchers to make stem cell advances and attract top Canadian stem cell researchers while Canada languishes, Bhatia said.

"Fifteen or 20 years from now we're not even going to be able to train enough physicians and researchers to capitalize on the discoveries of others," Bhatia said.

"I think when we're competing and collaborating internationally — it basically puts us in a different room."

Bhatia also predicted a shortage of embryonic stem cells in Canada, as more research is done and the need for certain types of cells goes up.

Two applications currently before HFEA

According to the HFEA, it has received two research licence applications to derive stem cells from embryos created via cloning.

Scientists in Britain applied in 2006 for permission to create human-animal hybrid embryos by injecting human DNA into cows' eggs for stem cell research.

The scientists said the hybrid human-bovine embryos could prove useful in pursuing treatments to prevent Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's, as well as spinal cord injuries, diabetes and arthritis.

"Our licence to them is designed to create cloned human embryonic stem cell lines from individuals who have known genetic forms of a variety of neurological disorders like Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, muscular atrophy and motor neuron disease, Dr. Stephen Minger, director of thestem cell biology laboratory atKing's College inLondon told CBC News. "What we really want to do is create disease-specific cell lines."

While Britain has moved ahead, Bhatia doesn't think Canada's position on hybrid embryos will change anytime soon. He said that when he testified in front of the Senate committee concerning the Canadian Assisted Human Reproduction Act several years ago, follow-up hearings were planned in order to revisit stem cell research.

"Two years have come and gone," he said. "If[the issue]does resonate within Canadian policy, it will be glacial."