BY ANNA ARCO
GENETIC scientists from Newcastle University and King's College, London, are putting forward a proposal which would allow them to create hybrid human-animal embryos, arguing that this would not require the use of valuable human egg cells.
The plan has raised new questions in the stem-cell research debate.
"To use cow eggs in cloning experiments does not solve the moral problem, but in some ways compounds it," said Dr Helen Watt, the director of the Catholic Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics.
"The risk is that human embryos will still be created, whose lives will be treated with even more contempt in view of their animal component."
If approved by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the plan, which was made public earlier this week, would allow the scientists to transplant the nucleus of adult human cells into an emptied animal egg cell. in a technique called Cell Nucleus Replacement (CNR).
Genetically, the newly created cells would be 99.9 per cent human and 0.01 per cent animal.
A team of researchers at the North East England Stem Cell Institute hope that approval will allow them to create hybrid embryos using egg cells from cows and human skin cells for the purposes of extracting embryonic stem cells.
The group from King's College hopes to use the hybrid embryo cells to track the genetic defects responsible for diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
The announcement prompted fears questioning the HFEA's legal authority over the creation of hybrid embryos. Josephine Quintavalle, the director of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: "We think there are still big question marks about the HFEAs legality which need to be addressed. We are not sure that hybrid cells fall under their mandate. The HFEA has a tendency to execute the prisoner and then start discussing the pros and cons of capital punishment afterward."
Although Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, recommended a prohibition on CNR between adult human cells and animal egg cells, no legislation ever went through Parliament on the matter.
A 2004-2005 report of the Commons' Science and Technology committee read: "Consideration of animalhuman chimeras and hybrids is made difficult by the lack of legal definitions."