By Professor Frances Flinter, Member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCOB) and Chair of the NCOB’s Reproduction, Parenthood and Families Advisory Group

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCOB) has a strong track record of informing policy and practice in the field of human reproduction and development, through robust and independent examination of ethical issues.

Capitalising on this, we are undertaking a rapid review of the ethical and regulatory issues raised by advances in human stem cell-based embryo model (‘embryo model’) research.

Why is this work needed now?

Research using embryo models is advancing at pace, bringing with it new potential for discoveries about some of the earliest stages of human development. However, it is not yet clear whether and if so how to regulate these stem cell-derived models as they are not currently covered by the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. Some countries, such as Australia for example, include embryo models within the regulatory framework that governs the use of human embryos. But is this something we would want to consider replicating in the UK?

As these matters are debated in the UK (and globally), there is a window of opportunity for us to contribute a robust ethical perspective. This will help to inform how to best regulate the use of embryo models now and into the future.

Why is the NCOB doing this work?

While embryo models are a relatively new and fast-moving area of research, there is a growing body of work and discussion around its implications and how research might be governed - which is welcomed.

As an independent, non-partisan organisation with decades of experience in undertaking multi-disciplinary deliberation, we are well placed to seek, explore and engage with different ethical perspectives on this area of research, and offer practical policy solutions.

This review is the first major piece of work within our Reproduction, Parenthood and Families priority area, one of three set out in our 2024-2028 strategy.

There are difficult questions to address. Most prominently, the morally relevant features of embryo models are a key consideration for our working group, which is Chaired by Professor Emma Cave, to grapple with. Addressing the regulatory gap head on is likely to necessitate an exploration of the relationship between human embryos and embryo models.

What are we going to do?

Over the next few months, we shall compile and review the most up-to-date evidence on:

  • Current and potential capabilities and uses of stem cell-based embryo models in research.
  • Suitability of possible regulatory or other oversight models and the case that might be made for different options.
  • A diverse range of views on the ethical issues raised by human stem cell-based embryo models.

We have invited a representative from the HFEA to sit in our working group in an observer capacity. This will ensure we have access to advice about the regulatory landscape and practicalities, while maintaining the group’s independence. We will use the evidence we gather to develop robust recommendations for decision-makers, aiming to publish these before the end of the year.

Our goal is for ethical considerations to help inform future policy and practice in relation to stem cell-based embryo model research. These findings will also contribute to and shape our future work in our wider priority area of reproduction, parenthood and families.

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