Skip to main content

Medical Research: Animal Eggs

Volume 688: debated on Tuesday 9 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will allow the use of animal eggs to further the production of human stem cells for research.

My Lords, the Government published proposals on 14 December to update the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. Our principal aim is to ensure that legitimate treatments and research continue to flourish within a system of regulation that promotes public confidence.

My Lords, the Government must be aware that the White Paper has caused a great deal of concern, as it does not seem to recognise that there is nothing new in the use of animal eggs and that human tissues and fusion products have long been used very profitably in medical research, as with xenograft models of cancer inserted into mice, for example. Would that be banned under the White Paper? There can be no question of chimera embryos being implanted in the womb; this is for research purposes only, to get round the severe scarcity of human embryos. Do the Government not realise that, if, tomorrow, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority decides in response to the Government’s White Paper that the three applications before it should be banned, that would gravely damage Britain’s reputation as a world leader in the field of stem cell research, which has attracted talent from all over the world, and endanger some very promising lines of research into serious disabilities that affect more than a million families in this country?

My Lords, I cannot comment of course on the decision that has to be made by the HFEA. I very much accept the noble Lord’s proposition about the status of this country in the area of stem cell research. He will recall that in 2001 I took through the regulations that allowed that to happen. The success of the UK’s approach has come from combining strong regulation with a development of regulation as science has advanced. We make it clear in the White Paper that we will not allow the creation of embryos by combining human, animal and genetic material as part of the current update, but we will put in the legislation to be brought forward a regulation-making power to allow for such creations in the future for research purposes, if it is so decided. That is consistent with the approach that has been taken for legislation in this area. We will bring forward a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny, when all these matters can be debated.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the cells produced by this method of nuclear transfer cannot be construed as embryos under the terms of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, but that they are capable of producing a very successful output of stem cells for the treatment of many crippling human diseases? Such cells produced by tissue culture would be free of any significant component of animal mitochondrial DNA. At the same time, is it not right that the Government should do what they can to encourage the donation of spare human embryos in IVF programmes and, wherever possible and feasible, the donation of human ova for similar reasons?

My Lords, these matters relating to egg donation are for the HFEA to consider. The noble Lord will know that the HFEA has made a recent decision in that regard. Our understanding is that the law is unclear about the regulation of human and animal embryos created by novel processes. That is partly why we have reviewed the current legislation and why we will bring forward a draft Bill for parliamentary scrutiny. We have to recognise that, on the one hand, as the noble Lord, Lord Walton, suggested, there is great potential in research areas and that, on the other, there is genuine public concern about some of these developments. We are attempting to maintain a balance. I am sure that parliamentary scrutiny will help.

My Lords, the Government are surely to be congratulated on their willingness to allow stem cell research, but Britain is rapidly becoming uncompetitive. The Medline index clearly shows that the numbers of publications from this country are falling. Does the Minister not agree that this is an example of an area about which there is very little public disquiet? There has been no evidence of that public disquiet of which he spoke. It is very clear that there is no possibility that such eggs, treated in this way, could become monsters or embryos that might be used for any purpose other than research. Under those circumstances, would it not be scandalous for this work not to go on to help human health?

My Lords, I hear what my noble friend says. He will know that I have been enormously committed over the years to encouraging the development of stem cell research in this country, as have the Government. We continue to encourage, and have put a lot more money into, research to enable that to happen. The UK’s position is very strong.

There will be scrutiny of the draft Bill. We will take into account the views that my noble friend has expressed, but our strong regulatory framework and the ability to march forward with the science have been the essential ingredients for our success in this country.

My Lords, in trying to strike the balance that the noble Lord has mentioned, will he take into account the views of Professor Austin Smith, of the University of Cambridge, who said as recently as 18 December in the Times that cloning research has limited potential for treating disease and that,

“there are real question marks about whether it has any utility at all”?

Is it not the case that since 1990, when your Lordships first authorised experiments on human embryos, more than 1 million human embryos have been destroyed or experimented upon without any diseases having been cured, and that the real breakthroughs are coming with adult stem cells, which carry no ethical hazards and raise none of the issues that chimeras, hybrids or the use of human embryonic stem cells do?

My Lords, my answer is the same as I gave to the noble Lord in 2001: we should not rule out any area of research; it is surely too early to reach hard-and-fast conclusions. That is why we are committed to supporting stem cell research on all fronts.