Whilst the key criteria of being “necessary or desirable” research when human embryos are used remain, changes include the possibility of creating “human admixed embryos (1)”, genetically modified embryos (2), and the creation of embryos without consent (3).Read more about UK legislation on embryo research since October 2009.
Embryo research is allowed in the UK, and has been regulated within the frame of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. Further regulations, with a broader remit, were added in 2001. http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1990/Ukpga_19900037_en_1.htm).
The 1990 Act established the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA - http://www.hfea.gov.uk/Home), which licences fertility treatments and regulates the creation, storage and use of embryos for research.
The 1990 Act states that all research on human embryos must fall within 5 specific categories (or purposes):
To promote advances in the treatment of infertility
To increase knowledge about the causes of congenital diseases
To increase knowledge about the causes of miscarriage
To enhance knowledge in the development of more effective contraception
(and allows) Detection of genetic or chromosomal abnormalities before implantation to increase knowledge about the development of embryos (in other words make PGD legal)
Furthermore, it is illegal to keep embryos in vitro for more than 14 days, and therefore embryos used in research must be destroyed within 14 days of fertilisation
Since the publication of the Dolly experiment of cloning by somatic cell nuclear transfer, however, new permissible categories of research were added to the HFE Act, allowing somatic cell nuclear transfer and embryo stem cell research. The amended Act allows the use of embryos for “increasing knowledge about serious diseases, or enabling such knowledge to be applied in developing treatments for serious disease” it also allows fundamental research on embryos “ increasing knowledge about the development of human embryos” (Statutory Instrument 2001 No. 188: The Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Research Purposes) Regulations 2001, available at: http://www.legislation.hmso.gov.uk/si/si2001/20010188.htm).
Importantly, whilst therapeutic cloning is allowed, human reproductive cloning is banned :The Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001, (http://www.hmso.gov.uk/acts/acts2001/20010023.htm). The Act makes it an offence to place a cloned human embryo in the womb of a woman, subject to a ten year prison sentence, a fine, or both.
In practice, the creation of embryos for research is allowed, as long as it is “necessary”, which means the particular research project cannot be performed with supernumary embryos. Each research project must be submitted to the HFEA, which will ensure it is appropriate (peer reviewed, proper consent of gametes providers, ethics committee approval, etc..)
The embryo research projects licensed by the HFEA may be looked up on their site: https://centres.hfea.gov.uk/Research