By Alok Jha (THE GUARDIAN, 19/02/07):
You wonder sometimes if government ministers get special training to cling to the daftest ideas. The dogged attempts of Caroline Flint, the public health minister, to ban the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos for stem cell research is a case in point.Her opposition, based on a biased public consultation that was hijacked by lobby groups, presupposes that the public feels ethically dubious about it. This error would be bad enough, but her unwillingness to recognise the mistake – despite increasing isolation from scientific advisers and colleagues, and the possibility that her ban will prevent urgent medical research – is verging on the irresponsible. The human stem cells needed by scientists are normally taken from fertilised embryos left over from IVF treatments, which have been donated for research. This is a precious resource for those working on developing treatments for diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Increasing the number of eggs available for research is a priority for scientists and regulators. The latest idea to get more eggs is to pay women to donate them. At present, the option to donate is only open to women undergoing IVF treatment, but the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is expected to approve a policy this week to extend the option to all women. If it proves successful, altruistic donation could provide researchers with hundreds more high-quality eggs every year.
Animal-human hybrid embryos offer another hope. Animal eggs are more plentiful and easily available than human eggs – scientists could get hundreds every week from abattoirs, for example. Hybrids do not open up a Pandora’s box of hideous half-men, half-beasts. Creating these embryos involves hollowing out an animal egg, usually a cow’s or a rabbit’s, and replacing it with the nucleus of a human cell. They need only be grown to the size of a pinhead for up to 14 days to produce useful stem cells, which would be 99.5% human.
Under current guidelines, making hybrid embryos is allowed as long as scientists get HFEA permission. The authority is caught between its stance that hybrid research should go ahead and a health department that wants to ignore that advice. It is already doing the dirty work for the government – last month it delayed permission for scientists in London to use hybrids pending yet more public consultations.
Flint unveiled her proposed ban in a white paper on fertility research. The Commons science and technology committee took it as an opportunity to set up an inquiry into the hybrids issue. Its report is not due until next month, but the evidence sessions, which called in a wide range of organisations, make it clear that Flint is out on her own.
The Wellcome Trust, Human Genetics Commission and Department of Trade and Industry, among many others, have publicly supported the need for hybrid embryos in research. The science minister, Malcolm Wicks, warned against basing important policy on inaccurate public polls. He told the inquiry: “If certain lines of inquiry are not pursued, that has to be on rational scientific grounds; it must not be for other factors which lack rationality.” The only people now keeping Flint company are pro-life groups and some animal rights campaigners.
Last November, Tony Blair urged scientists not to waste time in fights against “distractions” such as creationism or homeopathy, but to concentrate efforts on the big battles. Stem cell research is one of those big battles. Will this self-proclaimed pro-science government go with rationality, or will it allow the hysteria of the anti-science brigade to hobble a critical part of our medical future?
The sooner Flint admits that she got it wrong, the sooner this unnecessary and unpleasant episode can come to an end.