The law preventing scientists from experimenting on embryos older than 14 days is slowing the progress of genetic science in the UK, a leading scientist has said.
The developmental biologist Prof Azim Surani – who, in the 1970s, was the first to notice there was more to heredity than simple genetics, and developed a process called "genetic imprinting", which has developed into the field of epigenetics – told a conference on the science and ethics of embryo research in London that going beyond the 14-day rule would "make a huge difference" to research.
Most embryo research in Britain is carried out on embryos which have been created for in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Would-be parents who undergo IVF procedures can choose to give up any fertilised but unused eggs to science, but by law, the embryos must be destroyed when they reach 14 days old.
The 14-day rule is a compromise between the needs of researchers and the ethical and religious concern over the status of an embryo. At 14 days, the embryo first begins to develop the rudiments of a nervous system. It is also no longer able to split and form twins. The argument is that before this point, it cannot be considered an "individual" – since it has no nervous system and could still turn into two people.
As far as stem cell research goes, the 14-day rule is not a barrier, because stem cells are recovered from the embryo on day five or six. However, Surani said that in his field of germ line research – looking at how sperm and eggs become a new person and form new sperm and eggs in turn – it would be helpful to look beyond 14 days. He said: "If we could go beyond the 14-day rule, we could learn a lot.
"We can't get information from in vivo [natural] embryos, and we are very anxious to learn about how post-implantation cells propagate, and how early cells become primed for germ cell fates. That would make a huge difference. We would learn directly [about the development of the embryo], which we currently have no way of doing."
The 14-day rule was established in the 1990 Abortion Act, and reconfirmed in 2002 following a select committee report on stem cell research.