Britain’s Academy of Medical Sciences has launched a new study to examine the ethical and regulatory framework needed for scientific research which uses animals and animal embryos containing “human material.”
The study brings together experts in developmental genetics, clinical neuroscience, veterinary medicine, bioethics and law. They will examine the scientific, social, ethical, safety and regulatory aspects of the creation and use of animals and embryos which incorporate human material, a press release from the Academy says.
Prof. Martin Bobrow, who chairs the working group, said the call for the study originated within the scientific community itself and has the support of parliamentarians.
“It is important to ensure that this exciting research can progress within limits that scientists, the government and the public support. We will not only be focusing on the ethical dimensions of this research but also on how it is perceived by the public,” explained Bobrow, an emeritus professor of medical genetics at the University of Cambridge.
“Do these constructs challenge our idea of what it is to be human? It is important that we consider these questions now so that appropriate boundaries are recognized and research is able to fulfill its potential.”
The Academy claims the creation and use of animals who incorporate human material has “a long-standing and successful research history” with significant scientific contributions.
“There are already thousands of animals containing human cells or DNA, mostly mice with a single gene sequence of human origin, in widespread use throughout laboratories world-wide,” the Academy says, adding that new stem cell technologies could present both new opportunities and ethical challenges.
“The hope for the future is that animals containing human material, particularly human stem cells, will provide unprecedented opportunities to develop treatments for conditions such as retinal blindness, diabetes and stroke.”
CNA spoke with Fr. Thomas Berg, director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person who explained that “the mixing of the animal and the human...entails an enormous array of possibilities.”
He noted that while some of these “are ethically unproblematic,” such as “the use of porcine heart valves in humans,” others possibilities are “gravely immoral” such as “attempts at human cloning with non-human eggs.”
“The Church has well defined positions on some of these questions,” Fr. Berg explained remarking that in “the implantation of human genes into animals, the Church recommends prudence and caution although in principle there is no immediate moral problem with such experiments in most cases.”
The priest went on to state that the Church outrightly rejects, “among other things, human animal hybrid formation, grafting of non-human animal stem cells into a human embryo or fetus, and tetraploid complementation in a non-human animal host, which could eventuate in an intact human fetus developing within a non-human animal womb.”
Fr. Berg then touched on the source of the “human material,” saying that their origin could be of moral concern.
“The procurement of such material from electively aborted fetuses (which a perusal of the literature suggests is often the source of choice for researchers) is to be absolutely condemned,” he stated.
The Academy project seeks agreement on definitions for animals and animal embryos containing human genetic or cellular materials and also seeks to discuss their current and future uses.
The use of “human admixed embryos” in research will also be considered.
The Academy’s study of such issues is related to the parliamentary surrounding the Human Fertilization and Embryology Act of 2008. The study is expected to take 12 to 18 months to complete.