Hybrid Embryos and Dying Children

The BBC yesterday reported that the government is looking into calls to remove the ban on creating human-animal hybrid embryos using cells from dying children. As things stand the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill being considered in parliament would forbid such research without the consent of the child. In a letter to health minister Lord Darzi, a group led by the Genetic Interest Group (GIG) has argued that the Bill as it stands “imposes a barrier to one of the most potent tools for research into the most severe childhood diseases.” Our understanding of diseases such as Tay Sachs and Spinal Muscular Atrophy stands to be greatly enhanced by the use of stem cells obtained from such hybrid embryos.

In this context we see two of powerful social fears combined: worries about research at the boundaries of human life – the creation of interspecies embryos – and worries about the protection of children, particularly in medical research. It is only after we separate out these two sets of considerations that we can clearly see that the situation should be rectified, that the HFE Bill should be amended to allow such research.

Consider the creation of interspecies embryos first. There was a good deal of discussion about this issue in the media late last year and earlier this month. On the 17th January, a vote in the House of Lords rejected an amendment to the HFE Bill that would have forbidden the creation of interspecies embryos. In a separate process, permission was granted to two centres in the UK to go ahead with this kind of research.

Arguably the outcry both recently and in the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority’s (HFEA) original public consultation was based on a misconception that the hybrid embryos would be developed to the point of resembling some sort of mixed creature. The role of the public in the formation of policy in these matters is very important but it should not hold sway in cases of misunderstanding and bias. In this case the public’s imagination has been captured by terms like ‘hybrid’ and ‘chimera’ that call to mind images of part man/part beasts like Centaurs or Minotaurs.

One kind of objection to this research is that it constitutes interfering with nature.  But simple claims about interfering with nature are vacuous. There are many instances of interventions that constitute so-called interference with nature — arguably all of medicine is exactly such interference. We would hardly think that caesarean sections should be forbidden on this ground. The difficulty lies in saying why any particular inference is ethically problematic. Whilst there are likely to be cases where such claims are justified (when properly explained and developed). This is not a case where a satisfactory defence can be made.

A second objection to this research involves claims about a slippery slope. Critics might suggest that once we start creating these embryos we will be led inexorably to endorse the creation of hybrid monstrosities of the kind depicted in the myths and legends of the ancient world. This objection misses the point and the importance of public consultation, open discussion and the final regulatory authority of bodies like the HFEA. All of these are tools that prevent any sort of slope being in place. There are clear moral distinctions to be drawn between the research proposed and the supposed terrors at the bottom of the slope.

One final concern that people might have about this kind of research involves the use of drugs etc that are the produced as a result of these hybrid embryos. The worry is that drugs developed using stem cells produced from hybrid embryos will retain animal genetic material which will then be introduced into a human system with unknown long term effects. This however is highly unlikely. Whatever products result from this research will be chemically reproduced in a pharmaceutical laboratory rather than derived from the original stem cells.

With the overwhelming rejection of the amendment to ban the creation of interspecies embryos and the granting of a license to conduct this research in Newcastle and London, this debate has been settled for the time being.

The second major social fear involved in this case is the involvement of children. The important question here, given the state of the discussion about hybrid embryo research, is whether this research poses any particular threat to children. It does not. This research should be thought of as of a piece with other medical research involving children.

On the 10th December 2007 an amendment to the HFE Bill was withdrawn after debate in the House of Lords. This amendment would have brought the new Bill in line with other significant legislation covering research on human subjects. In particular, The Medicines for Human Use (Clinical Trials) Regulations 2004 (see Schedule 1, part 4)* has very similar stipulations for the regulation of clinical trials involving children as the amendment withdrawn from the House of Lords. Both require that research may proceed provided that (i) the child is unable to give consent, (ii) the child’s legal representative does give consent, (iii) the child has not indicated any objection to participation and (iv) the research is unable to be carried out involving subjects who can consent.

The Guidelines for the Ethical Conduct of Medical Research involving Children produced by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and endorsed by the GMC give a similarly prominent role to each of these four elements.

Current thinking on the involvement of children in research is that consent is not required but that certain alternative processes (like those just described) should be in place. If a child is permitted to take part in clinical trials and other medical experimentation under these conditions, they should similarly be permitted to take part in research involving human-animal hybrid embryos.

* These regulations are the UK implementation of the EU Clinical Trials Directive.

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