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

Science Editor,Steve Connor
Tuesday 15 April 2008 00:00

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.

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