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Stem Cell Research

Volume 724: debated on Wednesday 19 January 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review scientific developments in stem cell research, as recommended by the Select Committee on Stem Cell Research (Session 2001–02, HL Paper 83), with a view to ascertaining whether research on human embryos is still necessary.

My Lords, current scientific evidence supports research involving all forms of adult and embryonic stem cells rather than focusing on any distinct type. Investments in stem cell research are always evaluated against the current understanding of the science and of its application. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, will be pleased to note, having chaired the Select Committee on Stem Cell Research, that the Government are in the process of taking stock of developments in regenerative medicine, and that this review will inform strategies to support the development of regenerative medicine in the United Kingdom.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Does she not agree not only that the issue is of general scientific importance, but that it is important to ensure that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act is properly observed? The HFEA is allowed to award a licence to a research project only if there is no way of doing the research other than by using embryos. In the debates in this House, it was not only the Government who accepted the recommendation that there should be a review after 10 years; there was very broad support. Will the Government do their best to encourage a reputable medical body such as the Academy of Medical Sciences to undertake a scientific review of the whole field?

My Lords, this is a complicated subject. I will do my best and apologise if my answer is not exactly what the noble and right reverend Lord wants. Perhaps he will write to me again if it is not. The UK has a strictly regulated but facilitating system that allows all forms of stem cell research to take place under licence. It is not yet clear that research on adult stem cells will be the best approach in all cases. Enabling scientists to work on all forms of stem cells can help accelerate the process of finding alternatives to embryonic stem cells where appropriate. The Government continue to support this because at this stage we do not know from where the major advances in knowledge and the development of cures will come, and it is too early to tell whether iPS cells will be a viable alternative to embryonic stem cells.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the great and renowned report by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, gave a special status in research to the human embryo? Will she assure the House that the Rawlings report, which we are now awaiting, into speeding up the process of research decisions will still respect that special status, to which the current chairman of the HFEA has drawn attention only in the past few days?

I support the noble Baroness in saying that we should support that wonderful report. Of course, every haste will be made, but only in the proper way. We know that in keeping with the Haldane principles the prioritisation of an individual research council’s spending—whether it does and what it does—is up to it and is not something that Ministers should interfere with.

My Lords, there are approximately 400 people in this Chamber, of whom 150 will be likely to die of heart disease. Is the Minister aware that at Imperial College Michael Schneider and his laboratory have grown beating heart muscle, which has been possible only by using human embryonic tissue? Is she also aware that in the United Kingdom there are at least 200,000 infertile women who have approximately an 18 per cent chance of an embryo implanting? We need to understand why that implantation rate is so low. To do so, it is essential that we study the human embryo.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I was a governor of Imperial College for seven years, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, knows. I had to stand down to take this wonderful job. I know about the work that is going on and also about the work that the noble Lord is doing. Stem cell research offers enormous potential to develop and deliver new treatments for some of the most chronic and debilitating conditions that face people. I can only agree with everything he said.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that today, aside from bone marrow transplantation for leukaemia patients, there are no off-the-shelf therapies available using any type of stem cell that would treat hundreds, thousands or millions of patients? The potential for developing such therapies still lies in using stem cells with pluripotent characteristics that are also safe to use clinically. Science research has no guaranteed avenues of success. Does the Minister agree, as my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries of Pentregarth suggested, that a review of regenerative medicine and the science that will deliver it is more important than a review of single-cell stem cells?

My Lords, it is a pleasure to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Patel. He is an expert on stem cell research and a member of the council of the Medical Research Council. It is a pleasure and an honour to agree with him.

My Lords, to return to the question of adult stem cells and pluripotent cells, given that adult stem cells are currently used in the successful treatment of more than 70 different illnesses and that induced pluripotent adult stem cells are being used for new treatments, do Her Majesty's Government agree that adult stem cell research ought to be given priority in stem cell research in the current challenging economic environment?

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield asks an excellent question. I agree with him. Research excellence continues to be the primary consideration in funding decisions. Research on iPS cells has shown that although they are like embryonic stem cells, they behave very differently. I am only too delighted to agree with his statement.