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MPs back hybrid embryo research

MAY 20, 2008

UK scientists were granted the right to create hybrid animal embryos last night, after MPs in the House of Commons voted in favour of a change to the law on embryo research for the first time in 20 years.

An amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill to allow the creation of hybrid human animal embryos was passed on a free vote, by 336 to 176. The votes followed two impassioned debates in the committee stage of the bill, aimed at updating laws from 1990 in line with scientific advances.

In 2002 King’s scientists were granted one of the first two UK licenses from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to produce human embryonic stem cell lines from embryos no longer needed in IVF treatment.   In January of this year they were then granted a one-year research licence, along with Newcastle University, allowing them to fuse human cells with animal eggs to produce stem cell lines for the purposes of understanding some serious debilatating disorders such as Motor Neurone Disease.

Professor Robert Lechler, Vice-Principal (Health Schools) at King’s, comments: ‘This change in the law will have far reaching consequences on the research undertaken at King’s, and allow our scientists to carry out work using hybrid embryos that will boost research into some of the most debilitating and untreatable neurological diseases including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Spinal Muscular Atrophy.’

Pioneering work
Dr Stephen Minger, Director of the King’s Stem Cell Biology Laboratory, along with colleagues Professor Chris Shaw, of the Institute of Psychiatry, Senior Lecturer in Neurology and Neurogenetics, Clive Ballard, Professor in Biomolecular Sciences, and Professor Peter Braude, Head of the Department of Women's Health at King’s will lead the research at King’s in this field. 

Dr Stephen Minger comments: ‘The vote has opened the door to much more intensive stem cell research. Stem cells are those undifferentiated cells that can turn into many different types of tissue to treat specific diseases and disorders. These cell lines will be used by research groups throughout the world to generate new therapies for disease.’

Professor Chris Shaw, says: ‘The Commons vote supporting the use of admixed hybrid embryos is very encouraging. It will allow us to forge ahead on all fronts in our attempts to understand and develop therapies for a huge range of currently incurable diseases. Cures may be some years off but this vote does mean we can use hybrid embryos, in addition to adult stem cells, in our search to understand what causes Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and motor neuron disease. Without a much better understanding of what is going wrong in the brain it is very unlikely we will be able to reverse the disease process.’

The team plan to derive human embryonic stem cells using adult cells from patients with genetic forms of neurodegenerative disorders.  Instead of using human eggs, the researchers will remove the nuclei from animal eggs and replace them with cells from the patients, thus creating cloned stem cell lines that contain the same genetic mutation that results in these neurological disorders.

Scientists currently use human eggs that have failed to fertilise in IVF procedures for this technique, known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). However, the efficiency of SCNT is currently very low and therefore creating early-stage cybrid embryos will allow researchers to improve the technique without using human eggs.

King's College London and Guy's and St Thomas', King's College Hospital and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trusts are working together to create the UK's largest Academic Health Science Centre (AHSC). The AHSC will bring together the widest range of clinical and research expertise in the UK – strengths that will be used to drive improvements in care for patients, allowing them to benefit from breakthroughs in medical science and receive leading edge treatment at the earliest possible opportunity.

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