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Call for regulation of human-animal experiments

Regulations should be introduced to cover the growing field of research involving animals containing human material, a working group at the Academy of Medical Sciences has said.

Research underway that falls in this category includes transgenic mice, engineered with genes for Down’s syndrome, or goats altered to produce a human protein.

But there is “both capacity and rationale” to carry out research which may raise more ethical issues, says Martin Bobrow, professor of medical genetics at the University of Cambridge, who chaired the committee

Bobrow told a briefing in London on 21 July that regulation should be introduced to give clear boundaries and scrutiny for future research.

“[Scientists] are often knocked for bolting the stable door once the horse has run,” he said. “This is an attempt not to do that.”

The group’s 18-month consultation, which included a public survey, identified areas where research needed better scrutiny.

These include anything that makes an animal’s brain more human-like, those that put human reproductive cells in animals, and experiments that make an animal’s behaviour or appearance more human, such as appearance or speech.

Any experiments adding human material to primates should also be carefully considered, it said.

The working group proposed three categories: research needing no additional regulation to other animal research, research which should undergo additional review, and a final category that should be barred.

The second category would include, for example, injecting human stem cells into the brain of a mouse to test Alzheimer’s drugs, or testing on human sperm cells under the skin of an animal, said the group.

The “off limits” category would include research that might cross sensitivity boundaries, such as inserting human stem cells into the brains of animals more closely related to humans, such as primates, or placing human eggs in an animal where they had potential to develop.

However, Bobrow told the briefing that the definition of off limits should be subject to continual review, as knowledge of the research’s implications increases.

The committee has called on the government to establish an expert committee to regulate the second category of research, probably within the Home Office.

A member of the committee, Robin Lovell-Badge, a stem cell biologist at the National Institute for Medical Research, told Research Fortnight Today that the report was timely because the UK was in the process of revising its animal research regulations, as it moves an update to EU regulations into UK law by January 2013.

The report will be sent to government departments, as well as the European Commission and international research organisations, he added.