The Dutch government has announced it will allow researchers to grow human embryos “under strict and limited conditions” for scientific research.
The Netherlands will change its laws on embryonic research, which had until now only allowed tests to be conducted on leftover embryos procured from in vitro fertilisation processes.
Edith Schippers the Dutch health minister said she “wants to allow the creation of embryos for scientific research – and under very strict conditions to give people the possibility of (healthy) children”.
“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.
Earlier this month UK and US scientists reported they had grown human embryos in the laboratory and kept them alive beyond the stage when they would naturally implant in a mother’s womb. The scientists then destroyed the embryos in order to avoid breaching the two-week limit.
In April this year scientists in Japan were also given the green light to start modifying fertilized human eggs.
A government bioethics panel said they were only allowing the technique to be used for basic research purposes.