LONDON (AFP) — Britain's fertility regulator decided in principle Wednesday to allow scientists to create human-animal hybrid embryos for research purposes, as experts downplayed ethical concerns.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) gave the go-ahead to controversial plans to create "cytoplasmic" embryos, which merge a tiny bit of human DNA with eggs from animals such as cattle or rabbits.
Scientists argue such research could pave the way for therapies for diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
Applications to proceed with such work from researchers at Newcastle University in northeast England and King's College London can now be appraised by a licence committee in November.
An HFEA consultation out earlier this week found people were "at ease" with the proposals once the possible implications had been explained.
An HFEA spokeswoman accepted public opinion was divided and said their decision was a tough one to make.
"This is not a total green light for hybrid research, but recognition that this area of research can, with caution and careful scrutiny, be permitted," she said.
The use and destruction of embryos in research is a highly sensitive subject in the United States, for political and religious reasons.
US President George W. Bush has twice vetoed a bill seeking to allow federal funds for stem cell research as it would involve human embryo destruction.
Some experts backed the decision, while a government minister welcomed it.
"It does seem a little abhorrent at first analysis," said Newcastle University's Doctor Lyle Armstrong, who helped to create the world's first cloned human embryo in 2005.
"But you have to understand we are using very, very little information from the cow in order to do this reprogramming idea.
"It's not our intention to create any bizarre cow-human hybrid, we want to use those cells to understand how to make human stem cells better."
The government's minister for science and innovation Ian Pearson added that the decision was "in the best interests of science."
"The creation of cytoplasmic hybrid embryos offers an important experimental tool in the search for new treatments for currently incurable diseases such as Parkinson's Disease," he said.
Not everyone, however, was so pleased.
Some "pro-life" and religious groups disagree with creating embryos with the intent to destroy them later.
Anthony Ozimic, secretary of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said the "pro-life" group deplored the decision. "This is not just a case of the 'yuk' factor -- there are grave ethical and moral objections.
"All the evidence suggests that these embryos are essentially human. Yet they will be cannibalised and killed for their stem-cells.
"These embryos may have some human characteristics, and some animal traits. No one can say what ethical status they will have."
Archbishop of Cardiff Peter Smith also voiced concern.
"The decision as to whether or not our society allows the creation of part-human and part-animal creatures for scientific research is of profound significance," he said.
"The profound ethical question is: Is it right to transgress that species boundary and attempt to mix human and animal natures in however limited a fashion?"
The Vatican also weighed in on the debate, describing it as a "monstrous act directed against human dignity".
The research involves transferring nuclei containing DNA from human cells to animal eggs that have had nearly all their genetic information removed.
The resulting embryos are therefore mostly human, with a small animal component. Stem cells, which can grow into different kinds of tissue, are then formed.
The hybrids would only be allowed to survive to a very early stage so that they can be studied for therapeutic purposes, the scientists say, stressing that their goal is not to create a living animal.
The embryos could give researchers a large supply of stem cells to work with.
Scientists have had to rely on human eggs left over from fertility treatment, which are in short supply and often poor quality.
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