The Academy of Medical Sciences declared that rapidly expanding research in animals containing human tissue or genes necessitated improved regulations.
It suggested that although such studies were essential for medical research, they could encounter new ethical issues and thereby called for a national body of experts.
It further suggested that “human-like” behavior resulting from “category three” experiments on monkey brains should be banned. The government was in agreement with these recommendations.
“Everyone laughs at talking meerkats and cats with opposable thumbs, but if we were actually doing that in the labs I don’t think people would be so happy,” said Dr Robin Lovell-Badge from the National Institute for Medical Research.
Medical research has advanced with the introduction of human material into animals. Cancer drugs can now be tested on human tissue by implanting human breast tumor cells into mice.
Experiments on animals that lead to possible human characteristics are something the Academy of Medical Sciences has spent nearly two years considering
When the brains of stroke damaged mice were injected with human neural stem cells, they showed some recovery, which has led to human clinical trials.
To help researchers learn more about Down’s syndrome, a whole human chromosome has been added to the genome of Mice with Down’s syndrome .
One of the authors of the report as well as Professor Christopher Shaw, from King’s College London said that animals with human material were “hugely important. Is [the field] going to shrink and go away? No. I’m confident it will lead to new treatments.”
The academy report said it was anticipating “a major increase in the use of these techniques.”
However, it was concerned that gaps in the regulation could severely affect certain cases.
The authors said: For instance, embryo experiments predominantly comprising human material were governed by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority who ensured that the embryo would not progress beyond 14 days. However, animal embryos containing small amount of human material had “no regulation at all.”
The Home Office’s animal procedures committee regulates animal research.
The chair of the Academy of Medical Sciences, Professor Martin Bobrow, said: “Our report recommends that the Home Office puts in place a national expert body, within the existing stringent system of animal research regulation, to provide specific advice on sensitive types of ‘animals containing human material’ research.”
Research on animals containing human material must comprise three categories, as recommended by the academy. Most would be “category one” and have no more restrictions than any other study on animals.
Authorization for category two experiments could be obtained but “would require strong scientific justification.” According to the report, making an animal “more human-like” would include adding genes to non-human primates to bring about significant changes to the animal.
No authorization may be obtained for category three experiments such as permitting any mixed embryo develop past 14 days or breeding animals with human influenced sperm or egg cells and modifying non-human primates to create human-like awareness or behavior.
“Nobody has done any of these things” urged Professor Bobrow, but the Academy of Medical Sciences insisted on having guidelines in place rather than waiting until it was too late.
Lynne Featherstone, Home Office Minister, said that “We welcome the valuable contribution of this study to the understanding of the complex ethical, scientific and animal welfare issues involved in this area of research. We will consider the recommendations carefully.”