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Orders of the Day — Human Fertilisation and Embryology

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:41 pm on 19th December 2000.

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Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health 3:41 pm, 19th December 2000

My hon. Friend is right. Many of those in the vanguard of adult stem cell research do not believe that it can yet replace embryonic research. In previous debates, I quoted Professor Richard Hynes, the president of the American Society for Cell Biology. Also, Angelo Vescovi, who leads the Italian team, which has done pioneering work on adult stem cells and neural cells, says that he "completely disagrees" with the view that his research means that there is no need for embryonic stem cell research.

Professor Julia Polak, who is at the forefront of adult stem cell research in this country, told us: Like others we have conducted research using human bone marrow cells as a source of adult stem cells. We too have succeeded in differentiating these cells into bone and cartilage lines. But what is clear by the scientific evidence is that adult stem cells are scattered and hence difficult to find. While some research on bone marrow has shown its capacity to develop into liver cells, research has shown that adult cells are likely to be much more limited in terms of development potential than embryonic derived stem cells which are truly pluripotent. Without research on embryonic derived stem cells it is very unlikely indeed that adult stem cell research will ever realise its true potential. But let us suppose that the breakthroughs come thick and fast and that, as hon. Members have pointed out, there are new breakthroughs—perhaps in adult stem cell research. Perhaps early embryonic research will tell us all we need to know so that we can move on to adult cell research. Suppose that there are amazing, unpredicted breakthroughs in adult stem cell research.

Let us suppose that happens and that embryo research is not needed. That is no reason to vote against these regulations. If embryo research is no longer needed, under the 1990 Act it will not be licensed. That is the law.

The 1990 Act states that the HFEA must satisfy itself for each and every research proposal that the embryos are necessary for the research, if another way to do the research exists—through adult stem cells—the research cannot be licensed under the law. The checks are already built into the law, and so they should be.

Right now, the best scientific advice in this country and on the international stage is that adult stem cells do not have the potential that embryonic cells have. However, should that change over time, checks are already in place—in the Act—to ensure that adult stem cells rather than embryos are used in future research.