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Animal-human embryo research gets nod in UK

British lawmakers voted to approve controversial plans to allow the use of animal-human embryos for research.

world Updated: May 20, 2008 02:51 IST

British lawmakers voted on Monday to approve controversial plans to allow the use of animal-human embryos for research.

The proposed laws provoked a stormy debate, pitting Prime Minister Gordon Brown and scientists against religious leaders, anti-abortion campaigners and a large number of lawmakers. Other proposals would simplify approval procedures for so-called "savior siblings" and offer easier access to fertility treatment for lesbians.

Two days of House of Commons debate began on Monday and on Tuesday will include the first major vote on revising British abortion laws since 1990.

Opposition party chief David Cameron, and several Cabinet ministers, advocate lowering the 24-week limit for abortions in Britain. Legislators will vote on whether to retain the current limit or lower it to 22, 20 or 16 weeks.

Brown has said he believes scientists seeking to use mixed animal-human embryos for stem cell research into diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's are on a moral mission to improve, and save, millions of lives.

The process involves injecting an empty cow or rabbit egg with human DNA. A burst of electricity is then used to trick the egg into dividing regularly, so that it becomes a very early embryo, from which stem cells can be extracted.

Scientists say the embryos would not be allowed to develop for more than 14 days, and are intended to address the shortage of human embryos available for stem cell research.

"I believe that we owe it to ourselves and future generations to introduce these measures, and in particular, to give our unequivocal backing within the right framework of rules and standards, to stem cell research," Brown wrote Sunday in an op-ed piece for The Observer newspaper.

But opponents warn that an easing of laws on creating the embryos could lead to the genetic engineering of human beings. Human Genetics Alert, a science watchdog opposed to the proposed changes, claims the laws could lead to the creation of genetically modified "designer babies."

"Once we start down the road to human genetic modification, it will be very difficult to turn back," the group warns in a briefing paper for lawmakers.

Ann Widdecombe, an opposition Conservative lawmaker, said there is no proof that animal-human embryo research could help treat diseases that currently have no cure. "There is no evidence at all that it will save millions of lives," Widdecombe told Britain's GMTV.

Dr. Robin Lovell-Badge, a stem cell biologist at the UK's National Institute for Medical Research, said greater understanding of genetic diseases at the cellular level could speed the development of treatments.

"We have to be careful not to overhype it, because we can't promise anything will work, but if it does work then there will be a lot more understanding. More understanding is crucial to developing new treatments," he said.

Britain's Human Fertilization and Embryology law, which regulates all stem cell and embryology research, was drafted in 1990. Lawmakers will vote later Monday on whether to fully authorize the screening of embryos for genetic characteristics to create "savior siblings." These are cases where parents seek to have a child with specific non-diseased characteristics to help a diseased older sibling through tissue or organ donation.

The proposed laws are in line with the latest scientific developments and would provide Britain's Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority with clearer guidelines. The decisions are currently vulnerable to challenges in court, Lovell-Badge said. Proposals to end the requirement for in-vitro fertilization clinics to consider the need for a child to have a father will be debated Tuesday. Advocates say the change is necessary to enable lesbian couples and single women to gain easier access to fertility treatment.

Opponents insist the change fails to acknowledge the role of a father in a child's life.