Christians Join Human-Animal Embryo Debate

|PIC1|Christians were among those on a panel of experts debating the scientific and ethical-moral implications of creating human-animal hybrid embryos during a public meeting by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

The HFEA held the meeting in Central London on Tuesday night as part of an ongoing consultation with the general public to assess their level of support for the creation of human-animal embryos.

The consultation follows an application to the HFEA from the University of Newcastle for a licence to begin research on the creation of human-animal embryos and their stem cells.

The meeting was hosted by Nick Ross, TV presenter and Director and Trustee of the UK Stem Cell Foundation. Panel members included Dr Lyle Armstrong, lecturer in Stem Cell Biology at the University of Newcastle, Christians in Science member the Rev Dr Stephen Bellamy, Vicar of St James' Church Birkdale, in Southport, and John Cornwell, Director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge.

Dr Armstrong's research group at the University of Newcastle is proposing to create human-animal embryos by combining the nucleus - which contains the genetic material - of a human being with the egg of an animal, such as a cow.

Supporters of the research said it could help bring about a breakthrough in ongoing research into cures for conditions such as motoneurone disease and Parkinson's disease.

"As a society we need to have a clear consensus about how far forward we go with this," said Mr Ross.

Dr Armstrong stressed that there could be no certain outcomes from research into stem cells from human-animal embryos. He maintained, however, that it was still necessary to use those cells to work out in a laboratory environment what problems are occurring in cells to cause conditions such as Parkinson's and establish whether therapeutic cures for major illnesses could in fact be developed from the hybrid embryo stem cells.

"Adult stem cells are a very valid research model," he said. "But to my mind we should investigate both models because we don't absolutely know that adult stem cells are going to be the panacea to cure all human diseases, just as we don't know that embryonic stem cells are going to be any better."

Opponents fear that the creation of hybrid embryos could be the first step on a slippery slope into unethical science, although Dr Armstrong assured the audience that human-animal embryos would never be implanted into an animal or a woman.

Mr Cornwell voiced scepticism over whether finding a cure for degenerative diseases justified the use of human-animal embryos.

"We are allowed surely to be sceptical about whether this is quite the right way to reach those benefits," he said. "You don't have to be a religionist to believe there is such a thing as human dignity and it seems pretty obvious to me that to mix human and animal life is arguably an attack on human dignity."

Josephine Quintavalle, Co-founder of Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE) and also on the panel, said that research on stem cells from human-animal embryos was a "huge waste of money" and "fraught with difficulty". She called instead for more investment into adult stem cell research and umbilical stem cells.

Dr Bellamy, who is also a member of the Church of England's Mission and Public Affairs Council, said that the Church of England was willing to support research on human-animal embryos conducted within a 14 day period. The fourteenth days marks the point when the embryo is no longer regarded as a set of cells but rather as an individual.

He also stressed that using human-animal embryos for research into medical cures would have to be carefully regulated, conducted within a very narrow framework and only resorted to in cases where there was a "serious medical need" to be addressed.
"The proviso is that if research doesn't work then licenses shouldn't be issued and the research should be directed at reprogramming adult cells so that embryos of this form need not be created," he said, adding that it was necessary to at least explore the possibilities of human-animal embryos in light of the "Christian mandate to heal".

Opinion at the meeting remained mixed. Fourty-eight per cent of participants polled at the meeting agreed they "would not be happy to receive therapies derived from human/animal embryos".

The HFEO will carry out a larger opinion poll next month on 2000 people to further gauge public opinion on human-animal embryos.