Medical charities in the UK have gone on the offensive over ethically sensitive provisions for hybrid embryos in the government’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

“Patient benefit and the alleviation of human suffering is our ultimate aim,” insisted the open letter to MPs signed by the heads of the Association of Medical Research Charities and the Genetic Interest Group.

The Easter weekend saw a gathering wave of criticism from Church leaders over provisions in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that would allow scientists to pursue stem cell research using interspecies embryos – or “human admixed embryos”, as they are termed – created by implanting human DNA into animal eggs.

Bolstered by the Vatican’s recent revision of its list of mortal sins to include genetic manipulation, the Catholic Church weighed in particularly hard, with Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Roman Catholic Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, warning about “public government endorsement of experiments of Frankenstein proportions”.

The criticism stoked a political row - which the government has now moved to defuse - over whether ethically compromised MPs should be allowed a free vote on the hybrid embryo provisions. The increasingly open revolt among Labour Catholics, with talk of at least one resigning if MPs were not allowed to follow their consciences, was starting to spread ripples of unease about the UK’s ability to maintain its pre-eminence as a base for stem cell research.

For all that, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is thought unlikely to be defeated at a second reading in the House of Commons. Moreover, the government has reached its promised “accommodation” with dissident MPs: Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced yesterday that Labour ministers and backbenchers would be allowed a free vote on three contentious elements of the proposed legislation, including the creation of human admixed embryos fror research purposes.

New avenues
The letter to MPs from the organisations representing 23 medical charities in the UK says the controversial bill will “allow new avenues of scientific inquiry to be pursued which could greatly increase our understanding of serious medical conditions affecting millions of people throughout the UK, and ultimately lead to new treatments, at a time when such work is being significantly hampered by a shortage of donated human eggs available for medical research”.

Noting that the substance of the bill has already been “the subject of much discussion” and that the joint parliamentary committee assembled to examine the initial draft (the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill) has “explored in depth the difficult scientific and ethical issues it raises”, the letter states: We of course respect and acknowledge the sensitive feelings that surround this issue.”

“However, public understanding of the importance of the use of early-stage embryos and ensuing stem cell research remains robust; there is a real acknowledgement of its potential for those who are ill. Recent surveys by MORI and HFEA in 2003 and 2007 respectively, showed that the vast majority of the British public – 70% and 79% – support the use of human embryos for medical research to find treatments for serious diseases and for fertility research.”

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill as it now stands was launched in Parliament last November and is expected to take effect in early 2009. Supporters had to push hard for explicit recognition of stem cell research involving the full range of interspecies embryos, including ‘true hybrids’ created by mixing human and animal gametes.

The Human Tissues and Embryos (Draft) Bill pulled back from the general prohibition on hybrid embryos imposed in the December 2006 White Paper that laid the groundwork for legislation overhauling the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. But the research community was disappointed that, while these concessions accepted the principle of creating interspecies embryos for research purposes, the relevant language appeared only in the introduction to the draft legislation.

On the other hand, opponents of hybrid embryo research were outraged in January of this year when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority awarded one-year research licences to projects at King’s College London and Newcastle University involving human-animal cytoplasmic hybrid embryos.

The issue has been further complicated by the recent emergence of research from the US and Japan suggesting that normal skin cells could be reprogrammed through genetic manipulation into ‘inducible pluripotent stem cells’, with all the characteristics of human embryonic stem cells.