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Stem Cell Research

Volume 711: debated on Monday 22 June 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what support they are giving, directly or indirectly, to stem cell research.

My Lords, stem cell research is a strategic priority for UK public funding. Funding for all forms of stem cell research has doubled from about £30 million in 2005-06 to more than £60 million in 2007-08. Support comes from the research councils, regional development agencies, the Department of Health and devolved Administrations, and from investments to catalyse business innovation by the Technology Strategy Board. The Government also provide indirect support in the form of infrastructure costs and public engagement.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s commitment to stem cell research. Is my noble friend aware that last month some leading scientists in stem cell research dealing with multiple sclerosis met in London? They felt that Britain had made great progress but that we would lose the advantages we had gained if we did not allocate some of the stem cell research money to multiple sclerosis. Will my noble friend consider that as a possible way forward?

My Lords, I was not aware of the meeting to which my noble friend alludes but I am grateful to him for raising it. Stem cell research has huge potential to address some of the most debilitating and awful conditions that face people. However, the science is challenging and decisions about the allocation of funding on stem cell research, like all forms of government scientific research funding, are made through the peer review process under the Haldane principle where Ministers do not interfere in judgments about which projects to support. However, we recognise that the leadership that the UK has achieved in stem cell research, in part through the excellent regulatory framework which this House has contributed to form, is one in which we need to continue to invest.

My Lords, given that we have now destroyed or experimented on more than 2 million human embryos and last year permitted the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos, is not this an opportunity for the House to reflect on the difference in achievements of adult stem cells compared with embryonic stem cells? Is it not the case that there are more than 80 treatments worldwide and 300 clinical trials using adult stem cells and yet this country collects less than 0.2 per cent of stem-cell rich blood cord compared with 20 per cent in Greece, 18 per cent in Spain and 12 per cent in Portugal? Is this not something that we should be putting our resources into?

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is aware, we have debated at length the balance of research funding against the different areas of stem cell research. We believe that this is a fast-moving field of research whereby we have to maintain investment in all forms of stem cells—adult, embryonic, induced and pluripotent—and that that requires us to be open minded about the pace at which development can take place in them all. We have to recognise that the field of adult stem cell research has been in existence since the 1950s whereas embryonic research has been with us only since the 1990s. It is therefore too early to judge whether that field has a full potential to be realised. The noble Lord’s point about the collection of blood from human cords is a fair one, which I shall look into further.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the significant lead that the UK had in stem cell research. How far does he think that that, and in particular the recruitment and retention of scientists, might be under threat as a result of the rather more liberal attitude taken by the Obama Government towards such research?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right that the change in attitude in the United States towards stem cell research presents both a threat and an opportunity to the United Kingdom. Because of the approach that we have adopted, with a combination of investment in research, world-class science and the regulatory framework that our Parliament has provided, the United Kingdom leads the world in that area.

The fact that the United States has now recognised the full potential means that we have to continue to invest. We also need to explore collaborations with the United States; for example, to build on the existing memorandum of research understanding that we have with the state of California and develop that into collaborations with the whole of the United States. We are actively pursuing that.

My Lords, I welcome what the noble Lord said about paying attention to the Haldane principle, which seems to me as true now as when it was first propounded. Notwithstanding that arm’s length relationship, can the noble Lord assure us that, when grants are given for stem cell research—or, indeed, for any other very high-technology research—every opportunity and encouragement are given to the researchers to talk broadly and publicly about their research so as to gain public support for what they do?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right that, alongside the other areas of strength that I have mentioned in this field, the very fact that we, in this country, are developing the ability to discuss the most challenging ethical issues that some branches of science raise for us gives us the confidence to be able to move forward with the appropriate legislation that maintains public confidence. Therefore, we are encouraging scientists to do that by reflecting on how scientific research is judged, through the new research excellence framework, taking into account their engagement in public debate for their science.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is less than helpful if not, indeed, cruel to raise false hopes in many desperately ill people? Does he further agree that the success of adult stem cell research, all evidence-based, would suggest a tipping of the balance of investment towards adult stem cell research?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate raises an important point because we need to balance, on the one hand, the amazing potential of this science to transform lives—the tracheal replacement that we heard about recently was a good example—with, on the other, the fact that many areas of that research are 15 or more years away from being applied to the clinic. Therefore, these matters need to be kept in balance. It is the responsibility of the scientific community to avoid hype when talking about the potential of their science. We take that very seriously within Government.

As I have already mentioned, we see a balance of research funding at the moment that is approximately 50:50 between adult and embryonic research. The balance is a judgment for the scientific communities, not for Ministers. Through the peer-review process and the excellence of science, we have the structures to get that balance right.

My Lords, I am not quite clear from the Minister’s answers whether we will have more money from the Government, or whether the Government will have a hands-off attitude. Which is it to be?

My Lords, the Government are absolutely clear that we need to maintain our investment in science. We have more than doubled the science budget and, within that, over the past few years we have seen our research budget allocated to stem cell research more than double. While investing in the underpinning components that maintain Britain’s excellence in science, it is not for Ministers to judge which science is backed. That is for the research community itself under the long established peer review process.