Leading scientists tell politicians to stop interfering over ethics of embryo research

Politicians have been warned not to block scientific inquiry into subjects such as stem cells and embryo research just because there is a difference of opinion on the ethics or morality of the work.

An international group of scientists investigating the possible production of artificial sperm and eggs to treat infertile couples said that moral disagreements in society should never be used on their own to stop scientific investigation.

Scientists are working on a number of ways of making stem cells derived from embryos, or ordinary tissue such as skin, and turning them in the laboratory into mature sperm and eggs that could then be used in IVF clinics for fertility treatment.

The Hinxton consortium, which was formed in 2006 to investigate the ethics and legality of stem cells, yesterday issued its recommendations for how research aimed at creating artificial gametes – sperm and eggs – should proceed.

"Societies have the authority to regulate science, and scientists have a responsibility to obey the law. However, policy-makers should refrain from interfering with scientific inquiry unless there is a substantial justification for doing so that reaches beyond disagreements based solely on divergent moral convictions," the consortium said.

Professor John Harris, a bioethicist at Manchester University who is part of the consortium, said that while the development of artificial sperm or eggs to treat infertile couples was still a long way off, it is important the work is not blocked from the start.

"At this stage the real ethical issue is to ensure that the science can continue ... Is society ready for it? We don't know that, and of course if it isn't, then it won't happen, but there is probably some considerable time in which this could be discussed," Professor Harris said.

"Any tool can have applications that people can object to, from kitchen knives to anything else."

The Human Tissues and Embryo Bill currently making its way through Parliament would allow research into human artificial gametes but further changes to the law would be needed to allow doctors to use such sperm and eggs on patients.

Debra Mathews, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, another member of the Hinxton group, said that many people desperate to have their own biological children stand to benefit from ways of making artificial sperm and eggs in the test tube.

"For example, if you are someone who's been through cancer treatment and as a result no longer has sperm, eggs or gonads at all, this would be a way for you to have genetically related children," Dr Mathews said.

One possible way of making sperm and eggs would be to engineer them from skin cells, which raises the possibility that women could make sperm and men could make eggs, so that same-sex couples could have their own genetically related children. However, Professor Robin Lovell-Badge of the National Institute for Medical Research, said there may be insuperable barriers to the possibility of one sex making both types of gametes.

"The group thought it was going to be very difficult to get eggs from an XY [male] chromosome individual and that it would be even more difficult, if not impossible, to get sperm from an XX [female] chromosome person," Professor Lovell-Badge said.

Nevertheless, he said that the possibility of same-sex parents one day having their own genetically related children together could not be ruled out. "It's theoretically possible, but you have problems. As a scientist we should never say something is completely impossible," he said.

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty

Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style

Company reveals $542m investment in start-up building 'a rocket ship for the mind'

Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album