Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Ethical debate over Hybrid Embryos

Scientists at Newcastle University, UK, have created hybrid human-animal embryos. The embryos are created using the process of nuclear transfer, where the nucleus of a cow egg is removed, and is replaced with human DNA. They will be used to create new avenues in which scientists will be able to better understand currently incurable illnesses, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and eventually provide ways of treating them. However, the part-animal, part-human cells have caused controversy, and are the subject of a continuing ethical argument between various religious and scientific groups.

On Thursday 17th May, 2007, the British Government overturned its ban on human-animal embryos, opening the way for groundbreaking medical research into currently incurable diseases. This brought considerable applause from the Commons Science and Technology Committee, which originally criticized the government for outright banning any research due to protests by pro-life organizations.

Head of the human genetics institute at Newcastle University, Professor John Burn, welcomed the government’s decision. "I'm delighted that common sense has prevailed. I fully understand the knee-jerk reaction that creating human-animal embryos is worrying...but what we're talking about here are cells on a dish not a foetus…it's illegal to ever turn these cells into a living being."

Dr Helen Watts from the United Kingdom Christian Bioethics Institute, the Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics, warns that the scientists are entering dangerous territory.

"We don't know what kind of entity this will produce - if it produces a human embryo we have a serious ethical problem, because that embryo will have a non-human partial mother," she said. Even if it's not a genuine human embryo that's produced, it's still morally offensive. I think it's a mistake we often make in this country, to think if you just destroy the entity which you create it's okay to create it."

However, the government has imposed strict regulations with regard to the use of hybrid embryos in any research laboratory. Scientists are only allowed to grow the embryos for a maximum period of two weeks, and it is illegal to plant them in a human.

There are three types of hybrids allowed under the new legislation. The first, known as a chimeric embryo, is created by injecting cells from an animal into a human embryo. The second, known as a human transgenic embryo, requires injecting animal DNA into a human embryo. The third, known as a cytoplasmic hybrid, is made by transferring the nuclei of human cells into animal eggs from which almost all genetic material has been removed. However, the legislation also prohibits the ‘true hybrid’ embryos, which would involve fertilizing an animal egg with human sperm or vice versa.

The ethical debate will likely continue into the foreseeable future, and continue to challenge the moral conscience of society.

By Patrick Biggins


The Guardian

ABC News

Medical News Today

Newcastle University


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