Religious leaders and other dissenters concerned that the science is moving ahead of the ethical debate in the use of interspecies embryos for stem cell research will feel vindicated by the news that the first such embryos in the UK have been created at Newcastle University using human DNA and cows’ eggs.

The announcement came on the back of a ferocious debate over the Easter weekend about the moral implications of provisions in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that would allow scientists to pursue stem cell research using “human admixed embryos”, generated by implanting human DNA into animal eggs.

The Labour government was forced into allowing ministers and backbenchers who are uncomfortable with the notion of genetic manipulation a free vote on the hybrid embryo provisions and two other contentious elements of the proposed legislation, which is expected to have a second reading in the House of Commons next month.

Church leaders have been increasingly vocal in their criticism of what Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Roman Catholic Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, described as “public government endorsement of experiments of Frankenstein proportions”.

Nonetheless, there was nothing illegal about the research conducted by Dr Lyle Armstrong and colleagues at Newcastle University.

Dr Armstrong applied to the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for a licence to work on hybrid embryos in November 2006. Following a public consultation, this licence was granted in January 2008, as was a one-year research licence for a project at King’s College London involving human-animal cytoplasmic hybrid embryos.

“Very preliminary” findings from the Newcastle University research were presented by Dr Armstrong in a lecture at the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, late last month. The Newcastle team created hybrid embryos using ‘banked’ cells from a human embryonic stem cell line and a cow’s egg.

The nuclear transfer technique involves removing the nucleus of a cow’s egg and replacing it with human DNA. The egg is then encouraged to divide until it is a cluster of cells only a few days old.

The hybrid embryos created by Dr Armstrong’s team only survived for three days. The UK law as it stands sets a 14-day ceiling before the embryos have to be destroyed.

Professor John Burn, Head of the Institute of Human Genetics at Newcastle University, commented: “These are preliminary findings from ongoing research. Once fully validated, Dr Lyle Armstrong will be submitting the work for peer review and publication as is normal procedure.”

If the Newcastle team can produce cells that will survive in culture, “it will open the door to a better understanding of disease processes without having to use precious human eggs”, Professor Burn added. “Cells grown using animal eggs cannot be used to treat patients on safety grounds but they will help bring nearer the day when new stem cell therapies are available.”

As the university pointed out, work involving hybrids has already been going on for years under the authority of the HFEA. For example, human sperm performance “is tested by many labs across the UK by assessing the ability to penetrate the shell of a hamster egg”.