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Who will regulate UK embryo research?

Posted by , on 1 October 2010

In an attempt to tighten the country’s budget, the UK government wants to cut a large number of arms-length non-governmental organisations. These “quangos” (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations) include regulatory bodies, advisory organs, and other committees.

Until last week, there were only vague speculations as to which funds would be cut, but the news has become more certain now that the BBC has received a leaked document specifically listing 177 non-governmental organizations that are to be cut. Among those is the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which regulates legal and ethical aspects of anything involving IVF, but also sets standards and licensing requirements for any research done on human embryonic stem cells or human embryonic developmental studies in the UK.

Without the HFEA, who would oversee this area of research? This is a question the BBC asked HFEA chairwoman Lisa Jardine, who explained that the current functions of the HFEA would probably be split in three portions, with the research using human embryonic tissue ending up in a new regulatory body. Since that new body is not yet set up, she assumes that the HFEA will remain in charge of regulations until an appropriate alternative has been set up. (If you’re in the UK you can watch her response in a video, otherwise you can read a summary and partial transcript in this article on BioNews which gives a lot of background information).

On the HFEA website is a list of research projects that they have approved in the past. As you can see, it contains many fundamental developmental biology and stem cell research projects. Delays in approving such research in the UK would affect progress within the field, so hopefully Jardine’s prediction will hold true and cutting HFEA funding will not result in a gap in licensing.

The impending demise of the HFEA is not the only worry British stem cell and human embryo researchers have at the moment. The news comes at a time when UK-based researchers in all areas of science are threatened with cuts in research funding that would allow funding only for top and/or commercially viable projects. With scientists taking to the streets to protect funding for basic research, and with important regulatory bodies such as the HFEA under threat, interesting times are ahead for researchers in the UK.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, things could not be more different for hESC researchers: Not only is the US increasing basic science funding rather than reducing it, but it has just been announced that the federally imposed ban on stem cell research (previously on the Node) has been lifted, bringing US stem cell projects back on track. Quite the opposite story. Are any other countries currently awaiting regulations that affect stem cell or developmental biology research?

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Categories: Discussion, Funding, News

6 thoughts on “Who will regulate UK embryo research?”

  1. Hmm, no editing of comments allowed. Then I can’t fix “provided Brit science” to become “provided by Brit science”. I’m learning to slow my approach to the “submit comment” button, but I haven’t quite got it under control yet :/

    1. Ha, but since your first comment was *also* caught in the spam filter for containing more than two links, I had to rescue it anyway, and added the missing word. =)

  2. Thank you for the coverage, Eva. These are very interesting (and scary) times for stem cell policies. Although the ban in the U.S. is over, it sounds like the debate is far from over (from Eva’s link above):

    “But the reprieve may yet prove to be temporary. The future of government-funded hESC research in the US won’t be fully resolved until a fully fledged court case in which the US government appeals to have the ban on funding of hESC research completely lifted.”

    I wonder if these policy changes will cause some U.K. (and potentially U.S., if the appeals doesn’t go through) stem cell researchers to migrate to other countries to do their work…

  3. Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act is the legislation that enables embryo based research to continue in the UK. The HFEAct is not to be changed. The HFEAuthority is the regulatory body established under the HFEAct that provides the required Licence under the Act for specific research projects. Most of the tasks carried out by the HFEA in relation to oversight of research duplicate the requirements of the Research Ethics Committees (that also need to approve embryo research). The government proposals to bring the regulation under one body should make the regulatory process easier and less expensive.
    The only concern is to ensure that the new system of regulation takes the best of the old system, sheds the worst and is fit for purpose. Otherwise the burden of regulation could increase.


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