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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 June 2006, 00:21 GMT 01:21 UK
Where have all the chimeras gone?
By Caroline Ryan
BBC News

There were no shock headlines at the recent meeting of Europe's leading fertility experts.

Digitext image of
Creating a person's double is off the agenda

The gathering covered topics ranging from new genetic tests for embryos to access to IVF.

But conspicuously absent was the subject of cloned humans. Nor was any research which would make them possible talked about.

It's a far cry from the headlines from the same conference just a few years ago.

In 2003, scientists heard about the possibility that human eggs could be removed from aborted foetuses, and about a chimera - where two embryos are merged to form one person.

But have the ideas about chimeras and clones disappeared - or have they just gone underground?

I don't think we should shut the door on anything
Professor Bill Ledger, Sheffield University

The organisers of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) conference have shut the doors to such concepts.

'Getting a bad name'

Professor Joep Geraedts, chairman elect of ESHRE, said there had been a move away from "science fiction".

Those who run the meeting instituted a new policy a couple of years ago to ensure they select solid scientific research.

Researchers submit papers which are made anonymous and read "blind" by an independent panel.

Only the work which stands up to scrutiny and has been given ethical approval is accepted.

Professor Geraedts added: "If it is more science fiction than real science, it will not be selected.

"In the past, fertility research was getting a bad name - and that was why we changed our policy."

Fertility researchers, and those who watch developments in the area, also started to wonder where the evidence was for the headline-grabbing promises.

Professor Geraedts said: "There were studies where, after a couple of years, you could see there was nothing in it.

"The research is still going on but is not presented to this meeting."

Public clamour

Bill Ledger, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Sheffield University, said research which 'pushed at the boundaries' was not accepted by mainstream conferences - or journalists.

"ESHRE in particular is trying to be responsible, and if someone's done credible research - even if it sounds weird - they do allow it in."

However he said there were smaller conferences and journals where less solid work was reported.

But Professor Ledger added: "I think all that can be done is being done to not give the mavericks the publicity which they obviously crave."

He added: "There has to be a responsibility - among scientists and journalists.

"A lot of people listen to what's presented, they believe it can be done and they clamour for it."

But even if the clones and chimeras are not with us anymore, there are still contentious areas in fertility research.

Professor Ledger added: "There was some work presented at ESHRE about egg donations from younger women, where there was a very high rate of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome [a potentially fatal side effect].

"There was an extremely young average age of donors - 23.

"But we've had a lot of calls from older women who are interested."

Regulation 'key'

Josephine Quintavalle, of Campaign for Reproductive Ethics said the extent and consequences of egg donation were shocking.

"Egg donation is a major issue - as is the desire of scientists for human eggs for research."

So how should the fertility research community move forward?

Professor Ledger says: "I don't think we should shut the door on anything, if research is done properly - as it is in the UK.

"For example, a team at Newcastle University cloned a human embryo for the first time last year."

The aim of the work was to make cloned embryos from which stem cells can be used to treat diseases - not to create a cloned person.

"That's at the fringe of what society might permit. But it has been done in the UK and has been properly regulated."

"A blanket-ban is always a bad idea. People will go underground and it won't be possible to properly regulate or govern them."

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