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Hybrid happy

Science | UK regulator approves "99.9 percent human" hybrids

Issue: "He's in," Sept. 22, 2007

Man or mouse? The British regulatory body responsible for monitoring fertility treatment and embryonic research in the UK has approved-in principle-the creation of hybrid embryos for stem-cell research. After a four-month "consultation" involving hearings, debates, and a public poll, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) decided "there is no fundamental reason to prevent cytoplasmic hybrid research."

Cytoplasmic hybrids are made when the nucleus of an animal ovum is replaced with human DNA, producing an embryo said to be 99.9 percent human. A majority of Britons approve of such hybrids-but only if they are used to study certain diseases.

The UK proposed banning cytoplasmic hybrids late last year, prompting outcries from scientists and patient groups hoping to use embryonic stem cells to procure treatments for diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

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At that time, teams from Kings College, London, and Newcastle University applied to the HFEA for licenses to conduct research with hybrids, claiming cow eggs were cheaper and safer to obtain than human ones. In its response the Authority reviewed vague UK law and concluded that the regulation of cytoplasmic hybrids fell within its jurisdiction.

Others disagreed. Besides pointing to the obvious ethical problem raised by hybrids, pro-life and conservative groups have questioned the propriety of an unelected body making a pivotal ruling at a time when parliament was crafting legislation to deal with the hybrid issue. "In making this decision the HFEA have completely usurped the democratic process," a spokeswoman for the UK-based Lawyers' Christian Fellowship told British news source Christian Today.

Meanwhile, teams applying for hybrid licenses must wait for the HFEA to decide whether their projects are "necessary and desirable." Current UK law would require the embryos to be destroyed at 14 days old.

Lab notes

Agriculture: Scientists have identified a likely suspect for the widespread death of honeybees. Israeli acute paralysis virus, discovered in Israel in 2002, is found in a high percentage of hives affected by colony collapse disorder, and may combine with factors such as malnutrition or stress to infiltrate and weaken bee colonies.

Archaeology: Speaking of bees, scientists in Israel announced the discovery of the oldest apiary (bee farm) ever found in an ancient Near East excavation. The apiary, which may contain 100 hives, dates to the 10th century b.c. and is the first archaeological confirmation that the land flowed with honey in biblical times-and could milk be far behind?

Technology: London defense firm QinetiQ claims to have broken the record for the world's longest unmanned flight. The "Zephyr"-a solar-powered, 66-pound UAV with a 60-foot wingspan-reportedly droned over a New Mexico desert for 54 hours.

Health: Psychiatrists found that bulimic teens are more than twice as likely to recover if their therapy involves their parents, in contrast to the standard psychotherapeutic approach. Bulimia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by binge eating and purging, affects an estimated 1 percent to 3 percent of American adolescents.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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