The rise and fall of hybrids in the UK

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on October 20th, 2009

Stem cell research in general and cloning-based work in particular have led to a many strange tales of science politics and science policy. Example 1: The single most expensive political contest to date in Missouri was over a proposed constitutional amendment to protect cloning-based stem cell research (also known as SCNT), even though that work has never been done there and was not truly under threat (1, 2, 3). Example 2: In South Korea, one of the highest-profile scandals of modern science centered on a stem cell scientist who, after being bestowed with the de novo title of "Supreme Scientist," was revealed as a fraud and an embezzler.

Also fitting this mold is the remarkable push by UK researchers for animal-human hybrid SCNT embryos--a push that was a surprising "bang" of a success at first, but now may be dying with a whimper.

This story began when some SCNT supporters recognized the difficulty or inappropriateness in getting the requisite large numbers of women's eggs, and proposed using animal eggs as an alternative. (There were a few unreplicated reports of limited success with this technique by researchers in the US and China) In 2006, two British research teams asked their regulatory agency, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), for permission to create hybrid embryos. The British law was unclear on the legality of such hybrid embryos, but it was coincidentally up for renewal the next year. The Government initially proposed including an explicit ban on producing hybrid embryos in the law's revision due to widespread public opposition. Consequently, the HFEA delayed its decision, but leaned towards denying the permits.

In response, however, researchers and their advocates organized. Within a month, the HFEA opened a public consultation while the Government changed course and proposed permitting hybrids in the draft bill. In response , the HFEA agreed to consider the license applications--a controversial move since the consultation report [PDF] had not been released and the issue was under Parliamentary debate. Two licenses were approved in January 2008.

The hybrid issue was one of the most contentious in the bill. Gordon Brown's firm and sometimes misleading position in support of it was widely criticized, led to significant rebellion within his own party, and contributed to his declining popularity. The debate quickly manifested the typical symptoms of hype. Headlines blared, "Hybrid embryo ban 'would cost patients' lives.'" A researcher called a potential ban "a real affront to patients who are desperate for therapy." Scientists announced progress via hurried press releases and talks to industry instead of peer-reviewed journals in order to influence the Parliamentary debate. After Brown acquiesced to the intra-party revolt and allowed a conscience vote, the amendment to ban hybrids failed and the overall bill passed.

Since then, there has been little technical progress. A research paper indicated that clonal embryos produced with animal eggs may not yield quality stem cells, and in [month] the three research teams were denied funding (1, 2) by their respective Research Councils, the primary bodies of public funding of science in the UK. One scientist involved with the work then moved from academia to industry, another relocated to Spain, and a third announced his migration to Monash University in Australia.

Some immediately gave these events an explicitly political spin. In an article in The Independent, Steve Connor reported the denial of funding under the headlines "Funding halted for stem cell research" and "Vital embryo research driven out of Britain," the latter splashed across the entire front page. Announcing "Exclusive: Scientists say cash for research and existing projects has been cut off for 'moral reasons,'" his text sought a political motive. The closest Connor came to evidence was a quote from Stephen Minger (the researcher who shifted to industry work), who later said his statement was misrepresented by the paper. One of the Research Councils even had to issue a press statement in response to Connor's first article.

In fact, the Councils are dominated by researchers, and would seem to be unlikely sites of moral opposition to hybrids. And one researcher's announced move to Australia must have been in the works for months, not a sudden reaction to a loss of support. The simplest explanation is the most likely: Given limited budgets, these projects didn't warrant funding.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Posted in Hybrids & Chimeras, Jesse Reynolds's Blog Posts, Research Cloning, Stem Cell Research, The United Kingdom


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