Skip to main content

Adult Stem Cells and Life Sciences

Volume 599: debated on Tuesday 15 September 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Barclay.)

It is a pleasure to be here, and I welcome the opportunity to speak about this subject. I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences is present, because his passion and commitment to issues such as regenerative medicine and life sciences are very real, and go beyond his job.

A decade ago I had no real knowledge of the life-saving treatment that is available through stem cell transplantation, but after being involved in the scrutiny of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which received Royal Assent on 13 November 2008, I was convinced that, with increased investment in research, the life sciences industry could continue to improve outcomes and save many lives.

The then Government sought to enable the United Kingdom to lead stem cell research and treatment, but their attention was not on adult stem cells. Adult stem cell transplantation already saves the lives of many who are affected by blood cancers and haematological disorders, but it has the potential to do much more, and that is the point of this debate.

Let me put the issue in context. More than 10 years ago, an editorial in Nature Biotechnology admitted:

“forward steps continue to be made in the field of adult stem cell therapy. One estimate is that there are currently over 80 therapies and around 300 clinical trials underway using such cells”.

The latest data from the Commons Library does not go much further than that. Will the Minister tell the House how many therapies and clinical trials are currently underway using adult stem cell transplantation and therapy? I think the answer is that we are not much further on.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Barclay.)

A fine example of a forward step is the progress made by Professor Geoffrey Raisman, director of the spinal repair unit at University College London institute of neurology, whose work could ultimately lead to the repair of spinal cord injuries in humans.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the collecting of data at transplantation centres is very important and so is the sharing of it if we are to make progress? There should be greater emphasis on that, and it should be properly resourced.

Absolutely, and I will come on to that. The quality of the data that can be shared is important, and the key ask of the Government is to support the call for a national stem cell transplantation network, which will help in that.

However, Professor Raisman’s pioneering work remains underfunded. He hit the headlines in 2014 when Polish surgeons, in collaboration with scientists in London, enabled Darek Fidyka, a man paralysed from the chest down in a knife attack, to walk again using a frame. Professor Raisman said that the achievement was

“more impressive than man walking on the moon.”

Sir Richard Sykes, chair of the UK Stem Cell Foundation, said:

“To fully develop future treatments that benefit the 3 million paralysed globally will need continued investment for wide scale clinical trials.”

We are trying to get to precisely that clinical basis.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on what is an important subject. Given that a third of adults and a fifth of children who receive a stem cell transplant do not survive the first year, does he agree that we need better post-care provision, perhaps by establishing a national care pathway for patients for at least five years after transplant?

I do, and I want to look at the long-term outcomes.

My co-chair on the all-party group on stem cell transplantation, the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), is present, and our group has been looking at some of the outcomes of research. Last year we joined together with the all-party group on medical research and heard from a number of experts, not least Dr Rob Buckle, director of the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform. He said that the major challenge which remains is translating the basic science into the clinic. He said that we are still at least 10 to 15 years off routine clinical use of stem cells.

The hon. Gentleman has touched on some of the late effects of transplantation, and the fact that we are getting patients with late effects proves that people are living longer, but we need to put more money into research and into looking at these problems, to ensure that patients live as normal a life as possible.

The hon. Gentleman and I have for a number of years been party to reports recommending to Government that we need to invest in research to provide better long-term outcomes in transplantation and future therapeutic treatments.

One key area is Alzheimer’s, and some of us may have received a briefing from the Alzheimer’s Society. We know from our constituencies the huge impact of Alzheimer’s. There are 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK today, and this is forecast to rise to over 1 million by 2025 and to exceed 2 million by 2050. A technique was developed in 2012 to turn adult cells into nerve cells, which again highlights the curative potential of stem cell transplantation. That can be particularly helpful in understanding and testing potential treatments for Alzheimer’s.

The Minister will know that the estimated cost of Alzheimer’s is a staggering £4.3 billion, which is approximately 3.4% of total NHS spending in the UK in 2013. Observing the initial stages of Alzheimer’s in nerve cells can give scientists clues to help them identify genetic risk factors. It can also be used to test potential treatments to see whether the damage from Alzheimer’s can be stopped. We are a long way from that, but it is an illustration of how important it is for us to carry out further research into adult stem cell transplantation. Indeed, it is vital; it makes economic sense and will save lives.

I wish to focus on my involvement with the all-party group on stem cell transplantation and to highlight the potential of cord blood donations to transform our ability to meet the needs of every patient who requires a stem cell transplant, including black, Asian and minority ethnic patients, who have suffered from such poor transplantation outcomes. It is a scandal that, in 2010, just 40% of BAME patients were able to find a well-matched stem cell donor. That figure has increased now to 60%, which is really welcome, and the Government can take plaudits for that. The £4 million that was pledged in 2013 and the total investment of more than £12 million since 2011, along with all the investment from the charitable sector, have made a difference, but we still face a situation in which four in 10 people from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community are unlikely to find a match, which is not good enough. We must do more, and I urge the Minister to support continued and sustained investment as we approach the next spending review.

We need to focus on the outcomes. Of the 6,200 patients who will receive a stem cell donation between now and 2020, one in three will not survive their first year after transplant. Of those who do survive their first year, many will suffer a number of post-transplant complications, including relapse, infection and graft versus host disease.

Since 1993, the collection of stem cells from cord blood and bone marrow has increased at impressive rates, meeting the needs of many patients in the UK. Over the past three years, we have seen progress in a number of areas. Cord banking rates have tripled, a quarter of all cord transplants in the UK are now sourced domestically, and the cost of transplants to the NHS has decreased dramatically. But the urgent need for improvements in long-term outcomes remains. In order to make the necessary progress, the UK needs to ensure that the early-stage advancements are sustainable by investing in long-term research, which is the focus of this debate, identifying improvements to treatments and developing potentially new life-saving therapies. So what needs to be done?

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. He referred to the fact that the potential for about 80 treatments has been discovered through adult stem cell research. Does he agree that it would have been preferable to have put all the resources that have gone into embryonic stem cell research, which has produced negligible results, into the work on adult stem cells?

My hon. Friend will know that I was very much making that case in 2008 in the debates that we had on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Strong lobbying went on in relation to therapeutic treatments. I remember being in Central Lobby when many charities said that we had to pass that measure to provide immediate treatments. I do not want to get too involved in that debate today, beyond saying that adult stem cell transplantation is saving lives now, and has potential for the future. We need to have a really good mutual circle of which everyone can be part. Such a circle must lend itself to looking at the big ask of the Government today, which is a national stem cell transplantation trials network to ensure that we save more and more lives. We also need to look at future therapies as well.

I urge the Minister, as he steps up to the Dispatch Box, to show his support for a national stem cell transplantation trials network. This will not only provide a turbo boost for improving patient outcomes and make the UK a world leader in stem cell transplantation, but also support the economy by growing the life sciences industry, and I know how seriously the Minister takes that.

The UK Stem Cell Strategic Forum, which was established at the request of the Minister of State for public health in 2010, stressed the need for further research into stem cell transplantation in 2014, and that included the recommendation that the network be established. Furthermore, the all-party group on stem cell transplantation has called for a clinical trials network a number of times over the past few years. Last year, the all-party group heard from experts in the field who pointed out some of the barriers to research into stem cell transplantation in the UK. They identified inadequate research infrastructure and inefficient data collection. Currently, the small number of patient cohorts and the complex regulatory environment—I ask the Minister to look at that aspect as well—mean that fewer than 5% of stem cell transplant patients are recruited into prospective clinical trials of any kind. Also, data collection at transplant centres is inefficient owing to inadequate staff training. The poor quality of the data means that they are unsuitable for research purposes, which significantly undermines the potential to achieving good outcomes in transplantations.

The infrastructure is ready to provide support for a national network, which would allow for the rapid recruitment of participants, standardise procedure and provide a central data hub to manage and evaluate research and share information which could be used to improve patient outcomes.

Excellent UK charities such as the Anthony Nolan trust have been the first in the world to invest in third-generation sequencing. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should give support to that groundbreaking technology?

Absolutely. I pay tribute to the Anthony Nolan trust, which has been supportive of the all-party group for many years. It has worked hand in hand with the Government on providing more collections, and its registry is world renowned for providing support and saving lives. The trust is making the call, as we are doing here, that we could do much more with high-quality research to support better long-term outcomes for patients.

I would like to highlight the success of the trials acceleration programme, which was established by someone the Minister knows well, Professor Craddock at the University of Birmingham. He is also connected with the Anthony Nolan trust. The early phase trials involve an initiative to speed up the pace of new clinical trials using a hub and spoke model to ensure that trials are conducted efficiently. The hub co-ordinates trial centres at hospitals around the UK and deals with bureaucracy and regulatory issues. The trials acceleration programme has successfully overcome the main barriers to research—namely, inadequate research infrastructure and inefficient data collection. I suggest to the Minister that this programme should be replicated in the form of a national stem cell transplantation trials network.

I understand that one in eight people in the UK fail to find a matching donor. That number increases dramatically, however, for people in black, Asian and minority ethnic groups. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should prioritise support for further research into stem cell transplantation and the factors that affect transplant survival rates?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman on many of these issues. Progress has been made on collection rates, particularly among the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, but we need to find better ways to do this. As I said, one in four people are unable to find a match. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) is himself a donor, and he can speak for himself on this. I know that others present in the Chamber have family members whose lives have been saved by people donating. I want to send out a message from the debate tonight for people to donate and to be part of the registry, so that they can help to save lives.

This is not just about finding a match. We also have to think about the quality of the match. Everyone would like to see a 10 out of 10 success rate, but as a result of technological advances, lesser matches can now be used to help to save lives, even though they are not ideal.

Absolutely; I welcome that point. We are not talking simply about increasing capacity all over the place. We must remain focused, particularly on the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, to give them greater opportunities. We must also focus on quality and on the long-term outcomes. When a match is found, we must ensure that the transplantation happens and that there are no barriers to a good long-term outcome. We need further research if we are to achieve that.

Professor Craddock has estimated that the network will need £3.4 million of funding over four years. It is not going to be cheap, but there is a great return in terms of lives saved and good health outcomes. The lack of investment in this industry is a reflection on some of the uncertainty about the way in which we should go forward, but Professor Craddock’s approach is a trailblazing way forward.

The call to the Minister is to follow what is said in our report “Cord blood transplantation: meeting the unmet demand”. We made a specific recommendation to the Government to establish a national stem cell transplantation trials network to facilitate and promote high-quality research into cord blood as a curative therapy for patients with blood cancer and blood disorders. He will know that that is very much in line with the Government’s current strategy to develop the life sciences industry in the UK, as stated in the 2012 life sciences update. It says:

“We recognise the importance of empowering patients to participate in clinical research, and have set up the Clinical Trials Gateway, with associated mobile applications”.

We have yet to receive the Government’s formal agreement to support the all-party group’s recommendation, and I look forward to the Minister saying today that he agrees with it. I hope that he joins with the broad support from across the transplant community of well-organised stakeholders in the field who are looking to the Government to provide that lead, support and engagement, to make the UK a world leader in transplantation, research and life sciences—and that will need resources. I also ask that he meets the Anthony Nolan trust and other stakeholders to discuss this issue of research and long-term health outcomes, and the recommendation of the all-party group. We would be happy to welcome him to discuss all those things at our next all-party group meeting.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing this Adjournment debate on this crucial topic. I also thank Members from across the House—the hon. Members for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon)—for staying late to raise and support this important issue. Let me take the opportunity to pay tribute to the Anthony Nolan trust, and to the work of the many volunteers who support its work around the country and the partnership it has established with the NHS and with the National Institute for Health Research. I have been invited by them twice to visit the facilities and I am very keen to do that. I want to put on the record that the only reason those two visits had to be rearranged was the intrusion of the general election, and I look forward to visiting as soon as I can.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate has made clear, stem cell transplantation is a life-saving treatment that plays a key role in the treatment of leukaemia and some other diseases. Almost 4,000 patients a year receive this type of treatment. Many patients are fortunate to have a closely related family member who can donate stem cells, but the treatment of more than 1,000 patients depends on stem cells from a suitable unrelated donor. The Department of Health has invested significantly in this area and since 2011 will have provided a total of £19 million in funding to establish and staff a series of donor centres around the country. Earlier in the year, I was delighted to announce the latest £3 million of funding, and just this week we have seen the formal opening of the £3 million blood and transplant research unit down in Bristol, where red blood cells are being manufactured from stem cells. It is based in Filton and is the world’s largest blood bank. It is one of four new NIHR-funded blood and transplant units—part of the £15 million programme the NIHR is putting in place. The latest analysis by the UK stem cell strategy oversight committee is that this funding has directly led to approximately 130 additional patients each year receiving a transplant.

That great achievement relies on not only the dedicated clinical teams working in hospitals across the UK, but the effective partnership between NHS Blood and Transplant and the charity Anthony Nolan. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Professor Charlie Craddock and the work that he and all those involved in the trials acceleration programme are doing. They are, in many ways, trailblazers for the wider programme of accelerated access that I am leading through the accelerated access review. The Institute of Translational Medicine in Birmingham is breaking new ground on how we can take science into NHS practice.

The Government have also directly funded the creation of a unified registry—the Anthony Nolan and NHS stem cell registry—that ties together the different databases across the UK, making searching for a suitable donor quicker and easier. The number of registered donors continues to grow, and I am delighted that last year the registry passed the 1 million mark.

As hon. Members have highlighted, this is not just about the quantity; it is also about the quality. In response to the recommendations from the oversight committee, the funding from the Department of Health has specifically been used to create a panel of young male donors, who are much more likely to be able to donate. That panel now exceeds 70,000 and continues to grow. The data clearly show that that has been an effective strategy and that those young men are several times more likely to be asked to donate than others on the registry.

Finding a suitable donor is not the same for all patients. There is a global shortage of donors for patients from minority groups and those with diverse origins. To address that, the Government supported the targeted recruitment of donors from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community, which has now increased the chance of a patient finding a suitable well-matched donor from only 40% in 2010 to 60% today. It should be noted that our work with minority communities is supported by a number of partners in the charitable sector, such as the African Caribbean Leukaemia Trust, and more widely the Department continues to work with NBTA—the National BAME Transplant Alliance—which co-ordinates the work of those organisations on all forms of donation, including bone marrow.

It is an unfortunate fact that for many patients, finding a suitably matched donor will remain very difficult if not impossible, and in those situations umbilical cord blood might offer an alternative source of stem cells. Cells isolated from the umbilical cord are much more tolerant of slight mismatches and can be just as clinically effective as adult bone marrow and, unsurprisingly, BAME patients are almost six times more likely than Caucasian patients to receive stem cells from the umbilical cord. That is why funding from the Department has supported the targeted collection of high-quality cord blood samples. Both NHS Blood and Transplant and Anthony Nolan run dedicated units to collect cord blood and they have a specific target of collecting 40% of samples from BAME parents. The NHS cord blood bank now has more than 12,000 high-quality samples and, as a consequence, many more patients are now receiving cord blood samples obtained in the UK, making transplantation quicker and easier.

We continue to explore how transplantation can be improved, including clinical outcomes. I am aware that the NIHR Office for Clinical Research Infrastructure, NOCRI, has been in discussion with the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust and other stakeholders to explore how it might be possible further to build on the NIHR national clinical research networks. The NIHR welcomes applications on any aspect of research related to stem cell transplantation and those applications are subject in the normal way to peer review and judged on the basis of scientific quality and the importance of the subject to patients and the healthcare service. The collection of clinical outcome data, which has been mentioned by a number of colleagues, remains an important issue within stem cell transplantation, which is why some of this year’s stem cell improvement funding of £3 million has been earmarked specifically to support data collection. That is an issue that the hon. Member for Torfaen has highlighted.

Such initiatives complement at every level the broader work we are doing to support the new life science landscape in which genomics and informatics drive better targeted treatments. When we are thinking of the future of stem cell transplantation in the UK, it is important to see it as part of a much wider strategy for the development of regenerative medicine. When we identified regenerative medicine as one of the eight great technologies in 2012 in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, it was largely on the basis of its theoretical potential to develop into a significant sector, but in the past few years we have seen an explosion of activity in this field, justifying that investment. Much of the work is, of course, for small and medium-sized enterprises.

We have not only established through the work of Innovate UK the Cell Therapy Catapult but have provided £55 million of funding to build the cell therapy manufacturing centre in Stevenage. That centre will enable UK and global companies that are looking to scale up to phase 3 manufacturing, solving a key barrier identified in the translation of research into commercially viable products. When that facility opens in 2017, it alone will support the creation of up to 150 new jobs on the Stevenage campus.

The creation of such centres of excellence attracts further inward investment and current estimates are that the sector will grow within the next 10 years to be worth £1.2 billion here in the UK. The Government have worked to co-ordinate funding across the regenerative medicine sector through initiatives such as the UK regenerative medicine platform, driven by Innovate UK. The unique role played by NHSBT is notable in this respect. It already has experience in cell processing, storage and delivery of living cell-based therapies from its work with blood supply and it will have a key role in the development of the logistics systems to respond to the specific requirements for regenerative medicine. In the coming years, the number of cell therapies and their clinical impact will expand far beyond their current use in transplantation, but will none the less rely on this key foundation. NHSBT is more than just a specialist logistics organisation; it has the ambition and potential to play an important role in the development and adoption of a wide range of novel therapies. It has already set in place a number of regenerative medicine projects, working in partnership with universities and the commercial sector.

Preparing the NHS for the novel regenerative therapies was a key aim of the regenerative medicine expert group, and am I pleased to say that the excellent report published in March this year contained a number of clear recommendations. To ensure that those recommendations are acted upon, I have asked the chief executive officers of the key delivery organisations to take them forward. I look forward to receiving their update in due course.

My hon. Friend asked whether I would be prepared to meet the all-party group on stem cell transplantation. I would be delighted to meet the group. In fact, I want to take this opportunity to announce that, in order to facilitate the process of submitting applications to the National Institute for Health Research, I am in the process of organising an NIHR parliamentary moment—I hope that it will become a parliamentary day—at which that great institution, which spends £1 billion a year on front-line clinical research at the heart of the NHS, can come to Parliament and set out for colleagues across the House the different programmes that we are running in the different disease areas and how applications can be made. I hope that the all-party group, along with the Anthony Nolan trust and clinicians such as Charlie Craddock, will play a role in making applications to the NIHR.

I echo my hon. Friend’s call for donor volunteers to come forward. I congratulate those, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), who have already led the way by donating. The truth is that progress in biomedical science, cell therapy, genomics, informatics and the development of autologous stem cells—stem cells that do not require donation—is moving at an incredible pace. I recently visited the Berlin institute for stem cell therapy, and the extraordinary advances across Europe are bringing within our range a whole new world of regenerative medicines based on autologous, manufactured stem cells that do not require donation. There is a whole new class of therapeutics, with the T cell and the immunotherapy drugs, which we hope will mean that in due course we can treat some of these cancers without that therapy being necessary. For now, however, it is our line of last resort, so it is crucial that we support that work and encourage and support donors to come forward.

I welcome the Minister’s call for donors. I want to return to the point about trying to get the life sciences industry more involved. The Minister mentioned that it was largely SME-based. Although there has been public sector and charity involvement in the early stage of development, industry investment has been moderate. What does he put that down to, and how can we try to encourage the bigger life sciences industry to get involved?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. As in some other sectors, such as malaria, where the commercial models are not as well developed or as clear, there is a role for the Government, which is why we have set up the strategy and the partnerships. By de-risking and supporting the deep science in the early stages and bringing forward these partnerships of support, we hope to make it a sector in which more and more companies are beginning to see a return, and then they will start to invest their own money. All the indications are that that is beginning to happen here in the UK.

Will the Minister therefore ensure that the Government will continue to support the science budget in the years ahead?

Much as I would like to, I cannot take on the role of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and announce the results of the autumn statement. I hope that the hon. Lady will see that our commitment to, and support for, the sector is clear. I am confident that we will see a continuation of that support for science in the autumn statement. We all know that funding is tight. The key is to demonstrate clinical impact and partnerships of support with companies.

I think that this is a great success story. I pay tribute once again to the Anthony Nolan trust, whose partnership with the NHS is genuinely changing outcomes for patients.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.