Exclusive

Vital embryo research driven out of Britain

Scientists abandon plan to develop stem cells after funding dries up

All research involving the controversial creation of animal-human "hybrid" embryos has been refused funding in Britain and one of the three scientists licensed to carry out the work has left the UK for a job in Australia.

Every one of the three projects to develop embryonic stem cells from cloned embryos created by fusing human cells with animal eggs has now been abandoned, after publicly-funded research councils refused to back the studies aimed at developing new treatments for incurable illnesses ranging from heart disease to Parkinson's.

Two of the projects fizzled out earlier this year and the third is now understood to have ended after a funding application was aborted and the research licence issued by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) expired in July without being renewed, The Independent has learned.

The news is a blow to those who lobbied intensively last year for a change to the law that would allow the creation of hybrid embryos for research purposes. The new Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which came into force this month, was specifically amended to permit the creation of cloned embryos from human cells mixed with the eggs of either cows, pigs, sheep or other animals.

When the issue was debated in Parliament, many leading scientists, including the heads of the funding councils, warned that it would be a travesty if this kind of research was banned in Britain. It now appears that their own research committees have dismissed the grant applications from all three licence holders as not worth funding.

Although the work was not specifically allowed under the old 1990 Act, it was permitted under licence by the HFEA.

Professor Justin St John of Warwick University, who held one of the three HFEA licences for research involving the cloning of human-animal hybrid embryos, has resigned from his post as head of reproductive biology and is due to fly to Australia today to take up a position at Monash University, which is renowned for its work in the field of embryonic stem cells.

Professor St John refused to answer questions on the reasons for his departure but it is understood he is disillusioned with the funding environment in Britain and the amount of bureaucracy involved in getting ethical approval for this kind of work. In a statement he said: "I am moving to Monash University in Melbourne because it's a world-class university for the study of reproduction, development and stem cells and they have offered me a job."

However, when he was interviewed by The Independent in January just prior to submitting his funding application for creating animal-human hybrid embryos, Professor St John was asked about the refusal to fund the other two hybrid-embryo projects. "Some people will be extremely happy about that," he said.

Asked whether he thought there were people on the funding committees of the research councils who were morally opposed to this work, Professor St John said he had not submitted a funding application at that stage and was not in a position to comment.

"I haven't had back a set of reviewers' comments so I can't make a valued judgement as to whether it's for real scientific reason ... or whether the funding councils just don't want to fund this work," he said.

The heads of the two research councils responsible for funding work into animal-human hybrid embryos reacted angrily this year to suggestions that members of the funding committees morally opposed to this type of work may be influencing a decision on whether it should receive public money.

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, the chief executive of the Medical Research Council, which turned down one of the three licence holders, said that the peer-review system of assessing funding applications "rules out the possibility of a personal moral view influencing the final outcome of a proposal".

Colin Miles, head of systems biology at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which turned down another licence holder, said: "Having an HFEA licence to conduct a certain type of research does not automatically entitle researchers to funding. They must still compete for funding based on scientific excellence and strategic impact and the potential of the project to add significantly to the body of knowledge in that area."

The two other HFEA licence holders for research into animal-human hybrid embryos were Professor Stephen Minger of King's College London, who has left the university to work in industry and whose licence has now expired, and Lyle Armstrong of Newcastle University, who created 278 hybrid embryos from human cells and cow eggs before abandoning the work at Newcastle through lack of funds. He now works in Spain.

Professor St John's application was to create lines of embryonic stem cells from hybrid embryos created by fusing the egg cells of pigs with human cells from patients suffering from a disease of the heart muscle. He had already carried out extensive work on generating mouse-pig hybrid embryos, funded by the Medical Research Council.

Last year, leading scientists, politicians and commentators applauded Parliament for passing the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which was supported by both Gordon Brown and David Cameron and allowed creation of animal-human "admixed" embryos for stem-cell research.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'