British health officials endorse NRI couple's crusade


London, Nov 26, 2004

A non-resident Indian (NRI) couple's crusade for the right to create a "donor sibling" for stem cell treatment of their ailing son has led British health authorities agree to fund the controversial technique for treating similar cases.

Britain's National Health Service (NHS) has reportedly come to accept the technique that enables scientists to find out whether an embryo will grow into a child whose tissue will match that of a brother or sister.

When Raj and Shahana Hashmi wanted to create a "designer baby" to help cure their son, Zain, who suffers from a rare blood disorder, they were met with stiff resistance from pro-life activists, who even moved the high court to block the couple.

The parents wanted to use the genetic screening technique in which a donor sibling (a test tube baby) is created whose umbilical cord blood is then used to cure Beta Thalassaemia, the disease afflicting Zain. A non-matching embryo is destroyed.

The high court had barred the Hashmis in 2002, but last year they won the right to create a "saviour sibling" amidst protests from many quarters which described this mode of treatment as unethical and objectionable.

The Hashmis were accused of killing embryos in their attempt to create "a baby of their design".

The Leeds-based Hashmis had a natural baby after Zain, but his bone marrow didn't match. Zain, who has had about 100 blood transfusions so far, this week appealed for more ethnic-minority bone marrow donors.

While Zain's parents try to have a donor sibling and they have already made six failed attempts, the boy has to depend on bone marrow from matching donors. Shahana is 40.

The NHS is now reported to have begun funding the controversial stem cell treatment of more children even as opponents of this technique say the authorities were spending taxpayers' money inappropriately.

According to the Daily Telegraph, three local health authorities in the UK have agreed to fund couples wanting to create donor siblings to treat their ailing children. It said another eight or nine local health authorities were considering appeals from parents with similarly ailing children.

The NHS is apparently agreeing to fund such treatment methods because it could save dozens of children every year and relieve them from a "painful, expensive and invasive medical care".

It costs up to 1 million pounds to treat someone with Zain's disease for life. The Hashmis say they have exhausted their search for a matching bone marrow donor for their son and have turned to the contentious stem cell treatment.

--Indo-Asian News Service