TENS of thousands of Scots might be donating cells for research to create cloned animal-human embryos without their consent, an ethics campaigner has warned.
Dr Calum MacKellar has raised concerns that people donating cells for research do not realise it is legal for them to be used to create hybrid embryos. The director of research at the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics said scientists collecting cells for research into genetic diseases might be tempted to let them be used to create hybrid embryos for stem cell research.
Writing in the Lancet he warned that he believes there could be a new "consent scandal" similar to that at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool – where children's body parts were retained after post-mortem examination for research.
The creation of animal-human embryos using the eggs of an animal and human cells from donors is possibleunder the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, which comes into effect at the beginning of October.
Dr MacKellar said: "It should not be possible to create certain ethically sensitive animal-human cloned embryos without obtaining explicit consent from the human cell donors."
UK Biobank, one of the largest tissue banks in the country, is seeking to collect cells from 500,000 people across.
Although it insists it has no plans to use the cells to create cloned embryos, it has not ruled out that this might happen in the future. Dr MacKellar said:
"Out of 500,000 people, I'm sure there would be tens of thousands who would be aghast when they realise it could be used to create animal-human clones."
A licence would have to be granted by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority before cells could be used to create human-animal embryos, but Dr MacKellar said it has never turned down a request.
Dr MacKellar also wrote to Generation Scotland, one of the largest biobanks north of the Border. In contrast, it has committed not to create hybrid embryos without consent.
However, Professor Sheila McLean, a medical ethics expert at Glasgow University, said:
"If you were going to devise a consent form that said 'we might use this for X, Y or Z in the future, do you have any objections?', you might miss out some things that would emerge in the future.
"You might find yourself in a position where you deny all sorts of scientific advancements."
FACT NOT FICTION
HYBRID embryos which mix human and animal cells may sound like something out of horror film, but the reality is far less extreme.
Only "true hybrids" would involve human sperm fertilising an animal egg; other types of hybrid would involve minor genetic modifications, where animal tissue is incorporated into a human egg or vice versa.
The embryo would be allowed to develop for less than 14 days, so that stem cells could be harvested from it. Scientists use stem cells to test new drugs and study cells affected by illness.