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Stem Cell Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:52 am on 3rd May 2007.

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Photo of Lord Winston Lord Winston Labour 11:52 am, 3rd May 2007

My Lords, I shall concentrate entirely on human embryonic stem cell research. At some stage in the debate it will be said by some Members of the House that science is moving too quickly. Perhaps I may point out that embryonic stem cells were first grown satisfactorily in 1966. They were recognised to be able to invade tissues by Richard Gardner in Oxford in 1968. That is 40 years ago. It was Thomson who first grew human embryonic stem cells some 10 years ago. During that time scientists well understood the power and potential of stem cells. The fact is that we did not proceed with this area of science because we recognised that there was a question of its acceptability to the public. Scientists have been extremely cautious and entirely responsible throughout in the way they have conducted this research. There was one major case of fraud in Korea, but, that aside, there has never been a suggestion of lack of probity by anyone conducting this research in university centres.

It is interesting to look at the publications regarding human embryonic stem cell research. We frequently boast in Britain that we lead the field and that we provide the ideal liberal environment for this research to be carried out. This week I trawled through 2,600 papers on the PubMed index which cite human embryonic stem cells. Of these some 530 report individual research of a novel nature.

Despite the presidential ban on embryonic stem cells, which has existed since 2001 in the United States, the United States leads by far with this research; indeed, consistently year on year it has published one-third more papers than all the other countries put together. Currently, some 208 publications are from the United States. Israel comes next—a country with half the population of London—with 55 publications. These publications are generally in higher impact journals than the publications from the United Kingdom, which comes third with 50 publications. Thereafter, there are a total of seven other countries which lead in this research, all of them smaller than the UK, some of them tiny by comparison, including Singapore, Sweden, Korea—which is a larger country with a bigger base—China, which has been mentioned, and Australia.

It is also interesting to look at funding in those countries; I have some figures on that. My noble colleague Lord Patel has already pointed out that Proposition 71 in California resulted in the promise of $3 billion in that state alone, which has roughly the population of the United Kingdom. In Wisconsin, $750 million has been promised and in New Jersey, $270 million. By 2005, Korea had promised $27 million, Singapore $600 million, and there is substantial funding in Canada and Israel. In China, perhaps the poorest country, although it is starting to gear up more rapidly, $132 million has been committed to such research. In Australia, just one centre in Melbourne received almost 100 million Australian dollars in 2003, I think, to set up the stem cell research centre headed by Alan Trounson. The following question has already been asked but I need to reiterate it. Will my noble friend the Minister kindly tell the House exactly how much money has been promised by the UK Government for stem cell research and how much has already been allocated and spent?

Despite what is widely thought, at least 33 countries worldwide have relatively permissive legislation along the lines of that in the United Kingdom. It is not clear how effective the regulations for that research in Britain are. Undoubtedly, the current system under the HFEA results in extremely long delays to research licences being granted. A researcher must first apply to his local ethics committee. On average, in a research area in Britain, that takes six months because of the overload on those committees. If there is anything wrong with the wording of the application, one can expect a further delay as it is rewritten and resubmitted. Thereafter, and only thereafter, can the application go to the HFEA. It is usual for there to be a delay of three months before it sees it. Again, if there is a need to correct the informed consent form, for example, that must go back to the local research ethics committee and the whole procedure starts again.

Thereafter, it is sent out for peer review. My impression from my experience is that the peer review process is deeply flawed. For one application that I made, one peer reviewer did not even bother to reply to the HFEA's correspondence. The HFEA never explained why not to my research group. After that—let us say that at least a year has elapsed, and that is an underestimate—one can apply for funding for research. Let us consider a PhD student. It is unthinkable that the backbone of British science, the PhD student, will wait for a year or year and a half for ethical and funding approval of a project. In effect, that means that we are losing young scientists in that area. So even though it seems that we are progressing that science well, in fact it is severely inhibited and there is a serious need to re-evaluate the legislation, not because the legislation is wrong, but because the way in which it is implemented is deeply flawed. That is just one example.

In the long term, we live in a complex world and I am not convinced that regulation is ideal. Germany, which bans such research, can import cells from the UK; Italians buy eggs from Oregon; Australians do their work in Singapore; the Chinese have a different view of embryos from that in almost any other country. We need a change in attitude to how we control the work that is going on, with a better understanding of the responsibility of scientists.