US group questions human embryo research, calls for rules

A US public interest group has called for the US to set up national bioethics standards and regulations on embryonic research after a group of scientists in New York State produced a genetically-engineered embryo, dpa reported.

The Center for Genetics and Society, located in Oakland, California, said Tuesday the need for such standards was clear after the research at Cornell University was brought to light by a London newspaper over the weekend. Britain is in the process of revamping its genetic research laws.

Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa that the US urgently needs federal bioethical standards and a regulatory panel similar to those in Canada and Britain or even Germany, which has some of the most stringent rules on genetic research.

"The prospect of genetic technology being used to introduce new types of genetic inequality and social division, to create genetically-enhanced children is the core of our concern," Darnovsky said.

A brief account of the study by scientists at Cornell University was published in September 2007 in the journal Fertility and Sterility, but got little attention in the US.

In the experiment, the researchers put a gene for a flourescent protein into a single-celled but deformed human embryo that had three sets of chromosomes instead of two.

Dr Zev Rosenwaks, director of the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Hospital, told the New York Times on Tuesday that the embryo "was never going to be viable."

Rosenwaks said the goal of the research was to see if the glowing marker would carry into new cells as they divided, which in fact is what happened. The work was connected to stem-cell research, but was privately funded and thus did not fall under current US government restrictions on stem cell research.

Darnovsky said the Cornell researchers had crossed an unwritten but "consequential ethical boundary in almost a casual way, without public consultation or notification."

She said the "polarized atmosphere around anything that has to do with human embryos" in this country has created a "wild west" atmosphere in the US research community that stands "in the way of careful and thoughtful discussion" about any regulation.

"We want to see scientifically beneficial research move forward, but we want to draw policy lines" at research "in which new types of genetic inequality are written into the genome," Darnovsky said.

Rosenwaks, who was in charge of the flourescent gene research, told the Times that the project was approved by a review board at his medical centre.

Darnovsky said her organization does not object to gene therapy, designed to help individual patients, but rather to any genetic engineering that will be passed on to future generations.

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