The debate surrounding the controversial bill to overhaul the UK's regulation of assisted reproduction and embryo research gets stranger and stranger. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, struggling with dismal approval ratings, further raised the stakes of his support for the bill by authoring an opinion piece in the Guardian. But the shortcomings of Brown's argument are revealed when it is compared with the statements of less political-minded stem cell researchers.
Like so many writings advocating cloning-based stem cell research (i.e., somatic cell nuclear transfer), Brown's op ed drifts to distortion and hyperbole. First, he implies that only the current bill would establish oversight of stem cell research. Second, he concocts a supposed shortage of embryonic stem cells, caused in turn by a shortage of human eggs:
That is why we have - patiently and with full regard for religious concerns - sought to introduce clear laws which permit the use of stem cells within a clear, managed, legal framework, subject to the strictest supervision.
And there is one major and controversial issue we must confront head on if we are to make further progress. Around the world, researchers now face a severe shortage of embryonic stem cells....
By permitting the use of this technique [animal-human cytoplasmic hybrids], we may be able to bring to an end the critical limiting factor in stem cell research: the lack of human eggs from which to create embryos and collect stem cells.
Right now, teams of scientists in London and Newcastle are researching conditions such as Alzheimer's using this technique, but they face uncertainty because there is no clear legal framework to govern their work.
Despite Brown's claims, the UK regulates stem cell research - and has allowed animal-human hybrids - under the original 1990 law. And there is no "shortage of embryonic stem cells": any one of the dozens of currently available lines can readily be cultured into millions of cells and distributed throughout the world.
The truth about the proposed hybrid cloning technique is that some - but not all - scientists believe that stem cell lines with a known genome would be a critical step. One way to get such cells may be through cloning, which does require eggs, although that's not yet succeeded in yielding cells. In contrast, reprogramming via induced pluripotent stem cell has already created cell lines with known genomes.
Brown's specious assertions stand in sharp relief to the statements of some stem cell scientists. For example, sixteen researchers from six countries wrote a letter to theTimes questioning whether the proposals would lead to treatments:
In particular, given the current state of more conventional embryonic stem-cell research, of adult stem-cell research, and of induced pluripotent stem-cell research, there is no demonstrable scientific or medical case for insisting on creating, without any clear scientific precedent, a wide spectrum of human-non-human hybrid entities or "human admixed embryos".
We therefore question the scientific validity of proposals to create such embryonic combinations currently before the UK Parliament. We note with concern that, though not widely reported, the Bill does not just propose licensing so-called cybrids (99.9 per cent human, 0.1 per cent other species). It also proposes that embryos "created by using human gametes and animal gametes" (50 per cent human, 50 per cent other species) or human embryos "altered by the introduction of one or more animal cells" (ie, any percentage of human material) could be created under licence (UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill 2007-08, Section 4A(5) and Schedule 2. 3(3)).
All such proposals are highly speculative in comparison to established sources of human stem cells, and we remain unaware of any cogent evidence suggesting any might yield significant therapeutic dividend.
Nevertheless, the bill is on track to complete passage.
Previously on Biopolitical Times: