Netherlands to grow human embryos for research

© Cathal McNaughton
The Dutch government will allow labs to grow human embryos to be used for research in a limited number of fields, it announced on Friday. Currently scientists have to rely on a limited supply of leftover embryos from in vitro fertilization patients.

"The ban on the cultivation of embryos [has] hampered research which could help with the treatment of diseases on the short to medium-long term," the government said in a statement, justifying the ethically controversial move.

The cultivation would still have strict conditions applied to it, the statement said. Such embryos can only be used in research related to “infertility, artificial reproduction techniques and hereditary or congenital diseases."

The new regulations would not change the so-called “14-day rule”, which demands that any human embryo kept in a lab be destroyed no later than two weeks after fertilization.

The rule, designed to avoid a debate on when an embryo should be considered a human being rather than a tissue sample, is in place in many countries, but until recently was excessive, since there was no technology to keep a human embryo viable in vitro that long. But a new technique described by US and UK researchers in a paper published earlier this month allows that, giving practical interest to the ethical consideration.

A similar change of policy came in Britain this year, when the country granted its first research license to genetically modify human embryos.

Chinese researchers reported that they had modified genomes of human embryos last year, causing a heated debate in the scientific community. Critics said the editing procedure they used failed to affect all embryos and caused off-target mutations in some.