UK Report Backs Deregulation of Controversial Research

Relaxing the ban on genetic modification of human embryos is just one of the controversial suggestions contained in a report issued today by the United Kingdom's House of Commons Science and Technology committee. The report, part of a reevaluation of the country's regulation of medical and scientific use of human embryos, goes against mainstream public and scientific opinion in many areas.

Reproductive research in the U.K. is regulated by the 1990 Human Fertilization and Embryology Act, drawn up before mammals had been cloned or embryonic cell lines created. As part of a planned reevaluation and updating of the Act, the U.K. Department of Health requested the report from the Parliament committee, who would eventually decide on any changes to the law.

Overall the report argues against the precautionary principle--the idea that a procedure should be avoided unless reasonably known to be safe, which has tended to guide U.K. regulation of embryo research and fertility treatments. Instead, the report supports deregulation except where ethical or health issues clearly argue against a procedure. For example, it recommends that parents be able to use reproductive technology to pick the sex of their children, a stance that flies in the face of overwhelming British public opinion.

The report, from a committee made up of 11 members of Parliament, also recommends legalizing research involving embryos of chimeras and hybrids, which includes cells created by fusing human and animal nuclei. The change would give research on chimeras and hybrids the same legal status as that on human embryos. It's logical but radical, says Robin Lovell-Badge of the U.K.'s National Institute for Medical Research in London, who argues the "yuck factor" accounts for much of the opposition to such research.

The committee is itself bitterly divided over the report's approach and conclusions, a situation many think will limit its impact. Five of the committee's members signed a statement disavowing themselves from the report. They say that other members adopted "an extreme libertarian approach," producing a report that is "unbalanced, light on ethics, [and] goes too far in the direction of deregulation."

Stephen Minger, stem cell researcher at King's College London, agrees and says the report does not reflect the scientific consensus. "The views that are expressed there are very much different from researchers in stem cell work and reproductive medicine." However, Lovell-Badge hopes the report's recommendations will stimulate scientific research. "It's definitely a more liberal viewpoint than we've had before," he says.

The Parliament will seek comments on the report from the Department of Health, after which it will consider changing the law.

Related sites
House of Commons Science and Technology committee
Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority
Royal Society site on stem cells and cloning