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A group of Chinese scientists have drafted a set of ethical guidelines for research on stem cells extracted from human embryos, amid increasing concern that regulation of biomedical research in that country is lax.

The scientists have also called for the creation of a ‘supervision and evaluation mechanism’ to ensure the ethical development of human embryonic stem-cell research in China.

Researchers at the Shanghai-based Nanfang Research Centre of the State Human Genome Project say that research on embryos up to 14 days old does not violate their human rights, as embryos at this stage of their development lack a nervous system and cannot yet be considered to be ‘human’. This is in line with the current position in countries such as the United Kingdom, although it is contrast with the position in other European countries, where human life is considered to begin at conception.

At the same time, the Chinese researchers denounce the creation of ‘hybrid’ human and animal embryonic stem cells, concerned at the possibility of genetic disease and deformity in resultant embryos.

Such experiments are already taking place in China. Last month Chen Xigu of the Sun Yat-Sen University of Medical Sciences in Guangzhou triggered calls for tougher regulation of stem-cell research when he revealed that his research group had transferred nuclei from human cells into rabbit cells.

Chen says that laws and ethics should develop together with changes in technology, and should not be a hindrance to technological development. “The key question is whether the new technology brings benefits to mankind,” he told the Beijing Morning Post.

Embryonic stem-cell research has sparked controversy across the world. Many believe that the research — which uses cells extracted from human embryos at fertility clinics and from aborted foetuses — is morally unacceptable, as the use of the cells involves the death of the foetus from which they have been taken.

But others hope that research on the cells — which have the potential to grow into any of the body’s tissues — will lead to better treatments for diabetes and spinal injuries, as well as Parkinson’s disease and other degenerative diseases.

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