The Department of Health dropped the ball; or, there are elements of the civil service who hoped to reverse the liberal humanist approach to genetics adopted by the government. This is one of the few admirable stances that the Blair government has undertaken, consistent with its contempt for religious closure, and attraction to 'the new'.
Chimera are embryos that include a small amount of non-human DNA, usually sourced from pigs or cows. Such chimera are claimed to provide more efficient resources in studying diseases. When a white paper was published last year prohibiting the production of chimera, a campaign was soon introduced to reverse this policy. The Human Genetics Commission, an advisory body, recommended that chimera should fall under the regulatory authority of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). Since there is no other body that regulates human genetic science in the United Kingdom, this was a circumlocution for government policy to replace prohibition with regulation. Such matters woudl always have been regulated, anyway.
A public seminar held by the Science and Technology Committee heard that both the Government's chief scientific officer and the chairman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority's ethics committee were in favour of research on hybrids.
Stressing that such "cytoplasmic hybrid" research should be tightly regulated, Sir David [King]said: "We want to see that suitable controls are in place. But I am also very keen to see that the UK continues at the forefront of stem cell research and maintains its reputation as an attractive place to do research in this area.
"My view is that cytoplasmic hybrid research should be enabled. I don't think we want to see a blockage on that. I do think that scientists who wish to explore this avenue should be able to do so."
This is an important development for genetic science. Where regulatory permissions have pushed against the 'yuck' factor, governments hold consultation exercises and assess the popularity of the proposed research. For chimera, the consultation exercise developed a healthy majority in favour of prohibition from a self-selecting religious minority, motivated by belief to submit moral denunciations. The Department of Health assumed that a minority spoke for the majority. Following a swift campaign, they found a suitable path to retreat. Consultations will no longer govern policy decisions as pro-genetic interest groups are more activist. Moreover, the government and civil service may no longer consider the 'yuck factor' to be a sufficient precondition for prohibition. The result of the 'chimera controversy' could be a more considered and rational policy for genetic research and stem cells, maintaining research centres in this country.