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Mixing Animals and Human Tissues? Go Ahead If It Cures, Public Tells Researchers

The majority of the general public is in favor of research using animals containing human material (ACHM) if doing so helps to improve human health and cure diseases, says a study released today by the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) in the United Kingdom.

ACHM research is a relatively new field that encompasses everything from getting sheep and goats to express human proteins in their milk to injecting human stem cells into the brains of rats and monkeys in research to cure the effects of strokes. The latter type of research, in which human cells or tissue are integrated into animals, was given the green light in the United Kingdom in October 2008, when the British House of Commons approved a bill that expanded the country's rules governing work with human embryos. The aim of the new AMS study was to gauge public opinion on all types of current and potential future ACHM research, and its data is intended to help shape policy guidelines, which are expected to be released early next year.

"It's good that we are not in a position of simply reacting to this issue; we have set out to engage and discuss this area of research with the public from the outset," says medical geneticist Martin Bobrow, who chaired the academy's working group on ACHM. "It has certainly led to a calmer atmosphere, in which we can discuss these issues ahead of them being splashed across the tabloids."

In the study, 74 members of the public were invited to explore the moral and ethical issues of ACHM research in two day-long sessions of workshops and interviews with scientists in a qualitative study. An additional 1046 people were questioned in a nationwide survey, which found that 48% support ACHM research if its aim is to improve human health, compared with 31% who thought such research was unacceptable.

The levels of acceptability of different types of ACHM research were assessed in the qualitative study. Rather than discussing specific experiments, participants were asked to discuss the acceptability of research on specific organs. Bobrow says he was surprised to find that research involving the central nervous system of animals was of lower concern to the public than was research that changed the physical appearance of animals. Research that involves animal and human reproductive systems was found to be the least acceptable, as it raised difficult questions about what it means to be human.