The UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has decided not to rule on licence applications for research proposals using hybrid embryos until there has been a “full and proper public debate” on the issue.

While the deferral will hold up stem cell research by the teams from King’s College London and Newcastle University that have applied to use hybrid embryos created by implanting human DNA into animal eggs, it will also allow some breathing space for scientists who support the practice to take their arguments to politicians and the UK public.

There was a question mark over whether the HFEA even had the authority to rule on the use of hybrid embryos, while the government has proposed banning the technique in its recent White Paper on overhauling the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. In fact, the regulator concluded that, under current legislation, “these sorts of research would potentially fall within the remit of the HFEA to regulate and licence” and “would not be prohibited by the legislation."

Nonetheless, the evidence considered so far suggested the issue was “far from black and white”, with no clear agreement within the scientific community on the need for, or benefits of, hybrid embryo research, HFEA commented. Noting the “limited consultation” on the issue in the government’s White Paper, the Authority called for a “full and proper public debate and consultation” to determine the right approach to hybrid embryo proposals. “When the consultation has been completed in the autumn, we will then be in a position to consider individual applications,” it added.

UK a traditional stronghold

The UK has traditionally been a sympathetic environment for stem cell research, particularly in comparison with some other European countries or the US. Scientists and the biotechnology industry have warned that the UK could lose its lead in the field if the proposed ban on hybrid embryos is not overturned. They argue that hybrid embryos are a less cumbersome and more efficient means of harvesting stem cells, as well as addressing the current shortage of human eggs available for research.

The HFEA’s recognition that work on hybrid embryos was legal in principle was welcomed by the UK BioIndustry Association, which claimed there was “widespread scientific and public support for this groundbreaking medical research into treatments for diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and motor neurone disease”. By Peter Mansell