Monday, 2 June 2008

HFEA meets only “joke standard” in comments on Catholic Church teaching on human life and its decisions on human-animal hybrids

Lisa Jardine, the new head of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, recently made some very ill-informed comments on Catholic Church teaching on when human life begins. It augurs badly for the future quality of the HFEA’s decision-making on the fate of human embryos when its principal officer is so poor in doing her homework on a matter so easily researched.

The problem almost certainly does not lie with the intelligence of Lisa Jardine – which is well-evidenced. The problem lies with the very low standard of decision-making expected of the HFEA by the legislators who established it under the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.

Under her predecessor, the HFEA published its decisions on two license applications regarding human-animal hybrids and the minutes of those decisions can be found here. (The press release is wrongly dated 2007. It was published on 17th January 2008.)

James L Sherley, MD, PhD, a leading stem cell biologist, has commented that the HFEA meets only a joke standard for granting human-animal embryo licences. Dr Sherley is a senior scientist in Programs in Cancer and Regenerative Biology at Boston Biomedical Research Institute, Watertown, Massachusetts, USA. He visited London recently as a guest of the Catholic bishops' conference of England and Wales and participated in a two-hour debate titled Science, Ethics, and Faith: A Conversation About the HFE Bill sponsored by the Wellcome Trust on Friday May 16.

Dr Sherley writes: "The standard upon which the HFEA can license human embryo research is quite disingenuous. The HFEA proceedings for these license applications paraphrase the statute that gives the HFEA its licensing authority: as requiring only that the research 'appear to be either necessary or desirable' for the purposes: 2.2.a to increase knowledge about the development of embryos 2.2.b to increase knowledge about serious disease 2.2.c to enable any such knowledge to be applied in developing treatments for serious disease

"'Necessary' can be satisfactorily defined for the purpose of critical and objective evaluation. On the other hand, defining 'desirable' is preposterous. This standard is certainly too subjective for credible application. Yet, it is given equal weight to the 'necessary' standard, because currently meeting either is a sufficient basis for the HFEA to award a license. Certainly, at its very core, this HFEA licensing standard is a mean joke against UK citizens who respect innocent human lives and seek to protect them.

"The 'desirable' standard should be rescinded, because it lacks exactness and is easily abused. Thereafter, the 'necessary' standard requires a reckoning, too. If purposes 2.2.a-2.2.c cannot be accomplished without a given type of research, then that research can appropriately be deemed 'necessary'. Human-animal cloning research does not meet this standard. In a invalid attempt to justify their decision, the HFEA proceedings emphasized the idle promises of cloned human embryo research and completely excluded any assessment of the very real pitfalls of human-animal cloning experiments.

"Putting the human genetic material into animal eggs is certainly not necessary per se to increase knowledge about serious disease. Even suggesting that these experiments will somehow lead to improvements in making cloned human embryonic stem cells with human eggs is unsupportable on scientific grounds. Because of the biological aberrations and incompatibilities of inter-species mixing, human-animal embryo research will produce many misleading artifacts that have nothing to do with human development or human disease. For example, it is well known that when mature human cells are fused with mature rodent cells, the viable hybrid cells spit out most of the human chromosomes. Inter-species cloning experiments will add little or nothing to ongoing experimentation in uncontested animal-animal embryo cloning research (e.g., cloning of mouse embryonic stem cells), which has provided many insights into human development and human disease. In fact the current advances in induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) are due to research with mouse embryonic stem cells, not human ones. The HFEA position on inter-species cloning also ignores countless examples of non-stem cell research and adult stem cell research that continue to increase knowledge about serious disease.

"So, it is truly a wonder that the petitioning knowledgeable scientists actually want to undertake this unsound research. What is really motivating them? Perhaps, the answer lies in the following statement found in the public transcript of the HFEA evaluation proceedings (November 28, 2007) for the license application of Dr. Stephen Minger of the Stem Cell Biology Laboratory, Wolfson Centre for Age-Related Diseases, Kings College London: '[Dr. Minger] acknowledges that further equipment and staff will be needed pending approval of the application and subsequent funding decisions.' So, here it is again, just in a different guise: Innocent human lives created and destroyed for the benefit of others, but this time for others who have few redeeming qualities, if indeed any at all."