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Stem Cell Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:59 am on 3rd May 2007.

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Photo of Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior Conservative 11:59 am, 3rd May 2007

My Lords, in the 17 years between the isolation of embryo cells in mice and humans, there was a realisation about the enormous potential that stem cell technology offered in the treatment of some of the most devastating and distressing diseases of man, which are sadly on the increase as the age of our population increases. Stem cell technology, the regulatory framework for its use, and the ethical issues that surround it are complex and bewildering, and we should be grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Patel, has initiated this debate, to which some very knowledgeable noble Lords who participate will bring their knowledge and wisdom to bear on the various issues which the noble Lord, Lord Patel, laid out in his opening remarks.

In the period between the isolation of ES cells from mice and humans, much work has been done to isolate those cells from other species such as rats, hamsters, cows, sheep and pigs. The ES cells of the rat, the mouse and the hamster have been used to generate transgenic animals, which serve as models for human disease and the creation of chimeras—embryos containing a mixture of cells from distinct cell lines—has proved to be an incredibly useful approach in biochemical and biomedical research to understanding the effects of specific mutations and their role in human disease. An important outcome has been the production of much more specific targets for pharmaceutical research and the reduction in the number of animals required for such work, along with the concepts of refinement and replacement—the three Rs of experimental animal use.

In the time available, however, I shall concentrate on two points. The first is the use of hybrid and chimera embryos, which the noble Lord, Lord Patel, mentioned, in motor neurone disease studies. The ultimate goal of stem cell research is, of course, to provide genetically matched tissue to the recipient, thereby avoiding rejection and the need to administer anti-rejection drugs. This is done by placing the nucleus from a normal body cell into an unfertilised egg, where it behaves as if it were in an embryo. Stem cells exactly matching the donor of the nucleus can then be cultured into specific cell types needed to repair the damage in the patient.

The success rate of this procedure in animals is low; it has not yet been achieved in humans, at least in this country. As the noble Lord, Lord Patel, said, human eggs are in poor supply. An alternative approach is to use animal eggs as a recipient for human nuclei, from which human ES cells can be harvested. The animal eggs—cow eggs or rabbit eggs are often used—serve as nurse cells, and the procedure is governed by the regulations on harvesting ES cells. However, as has been mentioned, the Government have published a White Paper, in which it is proposed that the creation of hybrid or chimera embryos should not be allowed on ethical grounds. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee reviewed this and concluded that the Government's proposals are too prohibitive, would stifle research on transgenic disease models, and would have a negative impact on medical research. Some 200 medical charities have petitioned the Prime Minister, no less, to allow such hybrid embryos to be developed. I sincerely hope that they are successful.

I wish to give an example of the use of ES cells in situations other than the human patient—in this case, the horse. In 2007, ES cells have been isolated from horse blastocysts—the early fertilised cell—at the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association Equine Fertility Unit in Newmarket, in which I should declare an interest as chairman of its ethics committee. Such ES cells have the potential for therapeutic uses in racing and high-performance horses that suffer from sprained tendons, which, as anyone who deals with horses will know, are extraordinarily difficult to treat; treatment may extend over several months and often the horse breaks down again with a sprained tendon. Hitherto, treatment has been conservative, but recent work at the Royal Veterinary College has shown that, when injected into the damaged tendons, cells from the bone marrow—not stem cells—give temporary relief in the healing process. But the availability of ES cells from the Newmarket work will probably mean that those cells that are not rejected by the horse on an immunological basis can be used, stored and characterised, which will lead to a much more rapid and effective cure of sprained tendons.

Finally, mention has been made of the funding of research. I will not repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Winston, said, but I believe that we are living in an unsound paradise if we think that we are ahead in all research and funding; we are not. I hope that the Minister will take note of the absolute importance of funding.