Evan Harris: We owe it to the sick to support this research

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The Independent Online

Animal-human hybrid embryo research needs legal permission, good scientists and more funding.

Those of us involved in campaigning for human-animal embryo research to be legal during the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill always knew that this was a controversial area of research. But we also knew it was a field of enquiry which was necessary to keep open if those suffering from serious degenerative disorders were to be confident that all potential avenues for increasing knowledge about their condition, and indeed for finding possible treatments or even cures, were to be kept open.

It is disappointing – at least on one level – that, a year after the Bill became law, none of the three teams that had a licence granted to conduct hybrid embryo research has received funding from the research councils to do the work.

This does not mean that hybrid embryo research is without merit. The number of applications for research funding always far outstrips the funding available to do it, and even top-rated research projects don't qualify for Medical Research Council (MRC) or Wellcome Trust cash. All applications for the use of taxpayers' money need to pass a test of "peer review", where projects are graded by other scientists.

The chief executive of the MRC has assured me that funding refusal of these applications was in no way a moral judgement on the work and was due solely to the imbalance between money available and the bids for it. The question remains, however, that if we are to save human eggs for fertility treatment, then we have to find efficient ways of using animal eggs (with their nuclear material removed) as a substitute for the use of precious human eggs when making cloned embryos for research purposes in the lab.

Plenty of other funded work is going on in the UK into cloned embryos and embryonic stem cells, and given the urgent need to understand how it is that mature cells can be reprogrammed by genetic manipulation into what appear to be embryonic stem cells, it is likely that future applications for human-animal hybrid embryo research will come forward.

Thanks to the HFE Bill and the scientists who spent their time arguing their case to the politicians, the UK will remain a leading player in this work in the years to come, as long as the funding to bioscience is maintained.

Dr Evan Harris MP is the Liberal Democrat science spokesman

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