It’s yuk’and do we need these cybrids?

So here I sit, too late to be working, with papers scattered all over my desk, trying to make head or tail of the science of it all. And feeling totally overwhelmed.

So here I sit, too late to be working, with papers scattered all over my desk, trying to make head or tail of the science of it all. And feeling totally overwhelmed.

Science was not my strong subject at school. I stopped understanding soon after we had tadpoles to dissect. I tend to switch off, which is of no help to me now. And as I ponder over the ethics of allowing animal cells to have human DNA implanted in them, I have a feeling that most of the population probably feel the same. We do not have the necessary scientific background which would help us to contribute to the debate. All I know is that I am one of those whose instinctive reaction to the idea of mixing animal and humans is “Yuk”.

It seems likely that The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) will agree to grant licences to scientists seeking to make cybrids - cytoplasmic hybrids. The news broke last Wednesday. Well, I said broke. It was mentioned once or twice, and by Thursday I had to search to the latter parts of three broadsheets to find the articles. In December last year, the Government published a white paper outlining plans to prohibit almost all research on interspecies embryos. There was an immediate outcry from scientists resulting in a softening to outlaw only true hybrids - those made up of half animal and half human. We are probably now going to allow research which in Canada, France and Germany could result in a seven year prison sentence.

There has been a three month period of consultation. An opinion poll showed that there was a significant minority against the proposal with 61% of the public in favour. So now it seems it is a done deal.

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What mitigates against most people's instinctive feeling of distaste is the natural desire to see a cure for such illnesses as Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's. This carrot is dangled by those wanting to use cybrids for their research. However, read the small print and you will find words such as “possible” and “hoped”. Indeed Professor Robert Winston was quoted in the Telegraph as saying “... the potential of embryonic stem cells (ES) has been over-hyped and the difficulties and dangers of using them underplayed.” What is seldom talked about is the way that stem cells obtained from adult tissue are already being developed for 73 medical treatments. Predictions were made that research using ES cells would help treat spinal cord injury and heart disease. This has not happened but today both conditions are being treated by adult stem cells.

In a debate in the House of Lords on May 3 this year, Lord Alton quoted Dr Carlos Lima from Portugal, whose team uses olfactory cells to repair spinal damage, as saying: “Embryonic stem cells were made to proliferate and adult stem cells were made to repair. We shouldn't use one to do the job of the other.”

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Am I being cynical by wondering if what is pushing this is big money and the desire of some scientists to pursue their research with little regard of the ethics involved. Why has the British Government chosen to go in the opposite direction to most other western democracies by allowing such research if it isn't the desire to be biotech centre of the world. Why are they putting the majority of the £100m grant towards ES cell research rather than adult stem research?

The fact is scientists are not ethicists. That is not what they are trained to do. They are trained to set up hypotheses and then test them to see if they can be destroyed. They are not, generally, concerned with the consequences of their research. When asked if there should be any ethical limit to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, Prof Steve Jones said that there should not be. The limits should only come with applying the technology.

So who is going to put the brakes on? Not the HFEA clearly. Not the Government who at some stage will have to determine the moral status of these cells that are made up of 99.9pc human DNA. Nor the scientists: asking them to decide the ethics is like putting a fox in charge of the hen house.

We are talking about making embryos, creating human life in order to experiment on it. This apparently is ok because it will have to be destroyed before it reaches 14 days. It is ok because some possible good may come out of it.

Well, it is not ok with me. My gut instinct is still “Yuk” based on the premise that you should not mix human beings with animals. What is more, now it's based on the evidence that we have no need to cross our God-given boundaries.

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