Group Looks To Set Up British Stem-Cell Bank

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

London ( - A British group plans to open up a national stem cell bank that will collect a range of stem cell lines, including those created from in-vitro fertilization embryos.

The Medical Research Council (MRC), which is funded by the British government, will discuss the details of the bank at a conference to be held on Sept. 11.

The idea, first proposed by the Royal Society, a leading scientific body, will allow researchers access to stored stem cell lines.

Pro-life groups blasted the proposal Wednesday. The Pro-Life Alliance, Britain's anti-abortion political party, decried the date of next month's conference.

"The timing of this launch is insensitive and cynical, with Parliament in summer recess and the media focus directed towards anniversary events," a spokesman said. "There is no time to discuss the implications of donor consent, patenting, all the various regulatory processes which need to be addressed through the democratic process."

The Medical Research Council (MRC) countered by saying the date was chosen purely for practical and logistical reasons.

"We are not insensitive to the meaningfulness of the date," a spokeswoman said.

'Leftover' Embryos

Josephine Quintavalle, who heads Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE), said the bank wouldn't just be using "leftover" embryos from IVF processes.

"They've said that they've got to get their hands on high-quality embryos," she said. "That puts an end to the idea that they're just using what's leftover."

Quintavalle said government regulators advising the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) were too close to the IVF industry to avoid conflicts of interest when dealing with the new bank.

"This whole plan needs some serious thinking and debate before it's launched," she said.

Because the HFEA only regulates the narrowly defined category of human embryos, stem cells derived from embryos are outside the authority's remit.

"When stem cells lines are derived from embryos, that moves beyond our domain," an HFEA spokeswoman said.

The plans will still need a government thumbs-up, however, and some experiments on the bank's cells might run into further regulatory obstacles.

In Britain, regulations governing research on stem cells are complex and dependent upon the end result of potential projects. An MRC spokeswoman said part of next month's conference will be devoted to hashing out the regulations governing different experiments.b.

No pressure

HFEA head Suzi Leather said that despite the agency's limited powers, regulators would be able to ensure that clinics won't be able to pressure couples into donating IVF embryos to the bank.

"The HFEA has laid down very strict guidelines," she said.

Leather also defended the use of embryo stem cells in experiments.

"I think the majority of people will see that it would actually be wrong not to use this ability that nature has given us of providing cells for transplants and potentially treating or relieving human suffering," she said.

Quintavalle, however, maintained that the HFEA should be trying to protect embryos.

"Instead, they're colluding with clinics and scientists to make them easier to destroy," she said.

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