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Stem Cell Research

Volume 534: debated on Thursday 27 October 2011

9. What steps he plans to take to protect stem cell research in the UK following the decision of the European Court of Justice to prohibit the patenting of inventions based on human stem cells; and if he will make a statement. (76862)

Order. I think we have had enough references to animals. Let us now experience the product of one of the brains of the Minister.

I will do my best, Mr Speaker.

As I was saying, we are carefully considering the impact of the ruling on current UK patent practice. The Technology Strategy Board currently funds 15 studies involving human stem cells, two of which use human embryonic stem cells. The TSB and the research councils will continue to support and fund research on stem cells from all sources, including embryonic.

That was an interesting reply, because leading scientists in the field have called the decision everything from “devastating” to “appalling”. They believe this work will move to South Korea and Canada, and that potential cures for people suffering from degenerative diseases will be developed later, if they are developed at all. I simply do not understand the Minister’s answer, and I would like more details on how he is going to stop this work going abroad.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this research is very important in tackling fundamental human illnesses such as Parkinson’s, and that is why we will continue to support it. We are assessing the implications of the ECJ ruling. It is important that stem cells can be derived in a variety of ways, and embryonic stem cells are only one source of stem cells. That is why we need more time to assess the implications of this judgment.

I am sure the Minister agrees that stem cell science is one of Britain’s great strengths. The feeling within the industry is that this Government are putting their money where their mouth is. In contrast to the accusations and nonsense coming from Opposition Members that we are not investing in science, the recent £195 million investment in graphene and supercomputing and the protection of the science budget amounts to a real growth strategy.

We are totally committed to investing in life sciences in Britain, and let me give a practical example of how we can cut the burden of regulation to bring this industry forward: we have committed to reducing the time it takes to start a clinical trial from over 600 days—the period we inherited from the previous Government—to 70 days in future under us.

My understanding is that the Court’s judgment does not stop research into embryonic stem cells, but that it does mean that scientists will not be able to patent anything worth while, and that therefore the intellectual property is likely to go abroad, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) said. What are the Government going to do to stop that happening, because this research is vital for people with degenerative diseases?

The hon. Lady is right: this is vital research. The crucial points, however, are that the research is taking place using stem cells from a range of sources, not just embryonic stem cells, and we are continuing to assess how much of the research and development that currently takes place in Britain would be affected by this judgment.