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Some Brits freaked by frankenbunnies

Stephen Beard Jan 10, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Over in the U.K., the government’s set to rule on one of the most controversial issues in modern science.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN MOVIE CLIP: Alive! It’s alive!! It’s alive!!!

Not Frankenstein exactly. But not far from it either. Tomorrow, British regulators — the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, specifically — will decide whether British laboratories can experiment with hybrids — Part-human, part-animal embryos.

Opponents of the research say it’s dangerous and deeply unethical. But supporters claim it could lead to cures for crippling or fatal diseases, and that banning it will destroy Britain’s lead in what could turn into a multibillion dollar industry.

From London, Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports.

STEPHEN BEARD: Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal, was a British breakthrough — and widely applauded. But many people in Britain have recoiled from the latest plan to mix human and animal cells to create a hybrid embryo by removing the contents of the egg of a rabbit or a cow and temporarily implanting human DNA.

A step too far, says Dr. Andrew Ferguson of the Christian Medical Fellowship:

ANDREW FERGUSON: We are creating a being who is not completely human. We should not alter the whole future of what it means to be human. We should not blur the distinction that’s been there in nature since the dawn of time.

The prospect of a human-animal hybrid is causing widespread disquiet. Scientists say they’ve been told privately by the officials that regulate this field of research that hybrids are going to be banned. Professor Stephen Minger, a noted stem-cell researcher, says that would be a disaster:

STEPHEN MINGER: If the government bans this, it shuts off a completely novel and highly important area of research that may lead to new cures and new therapies.

The hybrids, which would have only a tiny animal component, would be destroyed within 14 days, after scientists have harvested stem cells from them. Studying these basic cells could lead to a cure for diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Stem cells are usually grown from human eggs left over from fertility treatment, but they’re in short supply.

Using the shell of animal eggs instead means the researchers can grow many more human stem cells, says Simon Best of the U.K. Bioindustry Association:

SIMON BEST: They’re simply trying to speed up the rate at which we can better understand the very early development of cells derived from human embryos, which is currently limited by the ethical and practical availability of human eggs.

If the regulator bans the use of human-animal embryos, says Best, it could slow down the pace of research in Britain. Scientists in China and Singapore, who are using hybrids, could pull ahead of the U.K. At the moment this would mean losing the lead in purely academic research. But within a few decades we could be talking about a multibillion dollar industry:

BEST: Treatments derived from this sort of work have the potential to perhaps create market opportunities as big as the current pharmaceutical market.

The U.K. regulator has reportedly warned that a ban on hybrids is in the offing. But Prime Minister Tony Blair is acutely aware of what’s at stake:

TONY BLAIR: We haven’t made this country number one in the world for stem-cell research, you know, in order to turn all that on its head.

Tomorrow the regulator will give its ruling. If it imposes a ban, the government could overturn it by legislation, igniting another round of debate about the ethics of mixing animal and human cells.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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