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Britain decides boundaries of stem-cell tech

A ruling is expected Wednesday on creating human-animal embryos.

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Britain is poised to make a landmark ruling Wednesday on whether scientists can fuse human cells with animal eggs to develop stem cells for therapeutic purposes, a contentious process hitherto conducted only in China.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) will rule on applications by two teams of scientists for licenses to create human-animal embryos, sometimes known as hybrids or chimeras, from which stem cells could be extracted to help understand and treat genetic disorders.

Whatever the outcome, the decision is likely to generate fresh controversy toward stem-cell research – the science of utilizing embryos for therapeutic purposes. Critics argue this is "playing God," and say the idea of going still further and mixing human and animal material is ethically repugnant and probably of limited practical value. The US, Canada, and Australia have all specifically banned the creation of hybrids.

But stem-cell researchers say they desperately need the animal matter because not enough human eggs are available. Britain has adopted an accommodating attitude toward stem-cell science, fostering a favorable environment that scientists argue would be undermined if this latest experimentation is rejected.

"We pride ourselves here on working in a pro-science environment," says Stephen Minger, director of stem-cell biology at King's College London, one of two scientists who have applied for the HFEA license. "It would be viewed as a depressing turn of events" if the application were turned down.

Stem-cell research involves harvesting embryos within the first two weeks of their creation, when young cells have the potential to develop into any organ. The cells can be used to identify genetic imperfections that lead to illnesses.

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