The British House of Lords voted yesterday to give scientists more leeway in experimenting with embryonic stem cells. The new regulations, passed by the House of Commons in December, are the most liberal rules formally adopted by any country so far.
Embryonic stem cells can, in theory, be directed to become any type of tissue in the body. Scientists are learning how to control the cells so they could be used to replace missing cells in diseases such as Parkinson's or diabetes. The research is controversial because scientists must destroy an embryo to collect the stem cells--so far the cells have been derived only from embryos created during fertility treatments and donated by couples who no longer need them. Even more controversially, some scientists would like to use the nuclear transfer technique that spawned Dolly the sheep to create new human embryos that would carry the same DNA as a patient. Those embryos could be used as a source of genetically matched cells for therapy.
Previous rules governing embryo research in the United Kingdom, in effect since 1990, allowed the use of embryos only for research into fertility or birth defects. The regulation approved yesterday extends the rules to allow experiments aimed at finding treatments for a disease as well--thereby opening the way for researchers to derive new lines of stem cells and to experiment with cloning techniques.
The new rules will take effect at the end of this month. All embryo work in Britain is regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which grants licenses to researchers wishing to use human embryos. British researchers who attempt to do embryo research without a license would face criminal penalties, including prison.