Monday, May 19, 2008

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill

The Times reports that today that as expected, the House of Commons has approved the most controversial measures contained within the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill

In other words measures which other countries have refused to permit will be allowed within the United Kingdom.

"An amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that would have outlawed the creation of “human admixed embryos” for medical research was defeated in a free vote by a majority of 160, preserving what Gordon Brown regards as a central element of the legislation.

The Government, however, is braced for defeat tomorrow on a separate clause that would scrap the requirement that fertility clinics consider a child’s “need for a father” before treating patients. MPs will also tomorrow consider amendments that would cut the legal limit for abortion from 24 weeks to 22 or 20 weeks.

A second amendment, that would have banned the creation only of “true hybrids” made by fertilising an animal egg with human sperm, or vice-versa, was also defeated by a majority of 63. Another free vote later tonight is expected to approve the use of embryo-screening to create “saviour siblings” suitable to donate umbilical cord blood to sick children.

Edward Leigh, Conservative MP for Gainsborough, moving the amendment to ban all admixed embryos, said mingling animal and human DNA crossed an “ultimate boundary”. He said that exaggerated claims were giving patients false hope and that the dangers of the research were unknown.

He said: "In many ways we are like children playing with landmines without any concept of the dangers of the technology that we are handling.”

Mark Simmonds, a shadow health minister, who moved the amendment to ban “true hybrids”, said there was no compelling evidence of their research utility.

Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West, challenged those who accepted admixed embryos in principle but rejected “true hybrids” to explain the ethical difference between an embryo that was 99 per cent human and one that was 50 per cent human.

Dawn Primarolo, the Health Minister, agreed: “Once we go down that road it seems illogical to oppose a particular mix.” Ms Primarolo said the shortage of human eggs was the major barrier to embryonic stem cell research. The minister admitted that the Bill “was not a promise” that cures to diseases could be found. “It’s an aspiration that it may.”

The amendment to ban all admixed embryos was defeated by 336 votes to 176. The prohibition on true hybrids was defeated by 286 votes to 223.

The main type of admixed embryo permitted by the Bill are “cytoplasmic hybrids” or “cybrids”, made by moving a human nucleus into an empty animal egg. These are genetically 99.9 per cent human. As well as true hybrids, it also allows chimeras that combine human and animal cells and transgenic human embryos that include a little animal DNA.

The most immediate implication of the Commons vote will be to allow teams at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and King’s College, London, who already hold licences to create a particular type of admixed embryo, to continue their research.

Though they were cleared to start these experiments by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in January, these licences would have been rescinded had MPs voted for a ban.

Both teams are trying to create cybrids, which could carry the DNA of patients with genetic conditions to create stem-cell models.

The idea is to make stem cell models of diseases, to study their progress and to test new treatments. Human eggs could be used, but they are in short supply as they cannot be donated without risk to women.

It is legal to culture admixed embryos for a maximum of 14 days but it is illegal to transfer them to a human or animal womb. A Times/Populus poll found last month that 50 per cent of the public supports this work, with only 30 per cent opposed.

The decision will also encourage a third team, who plans to use admixed embryos to study motor neuron disease, to apply for a licence. The group, led by Professor Chris Shaw of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, had been waiting for the vote."

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