Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Stem Cell Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:06 pm on 3rd May 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of The Bishop of Newcastle The Bishop of Newcastle Bishop 12:06 pm, 3rd May 2007

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, not only for introducing this debate but for his distinguished contribution to this area of research.

Stem cell research is one of the most exciting, exacting, complicated and, for some people, anxiety-inducing areas of research today. Living as I do in the city of Newcastle, I cannot but be aware both of the possibilities that stem cell research seems to promise and of the ethical questions that it raises. The scientists at the Newcastle Centre for Life were the first group in this country to make a human embryo through cell nuclear replacement. Last summer, academic scientists and industrialists gathered in our city to look at the technology required to enable stem cell products to be made on a marketable scale. More recently, the North East England Stem Cell Institute has been set up through collaboration between the universities of Newcastle and Durham, the Centre for Life and the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. Noteworthy to me is that this new institute has received significant funding from the regional development agency. The development of stem cell research is rapid, and considerable expertise has already been gained and established in the north-east.

The potential that this research offers in treating serious diseases and injuries is great. It is hardly surprising that interest groups and charities representing those diseases that may be cured through advances in stem cell research want to press on and to promote the research as far and as widely as they can. One of the key questions is simply whether the ends, laudable as they are, justify the means. Should there be any limits and, if so, where should the boundaries be drawn? Does the potential of the knowledge, the techniques and the cell lines developed through research on embryonic stem cells justify the generation, manipulation and destruction of human embryos? Is it appropriate to make human embryos purely for research purposes, never having any intention of implanting them in the womb?

Those are the kinds of issues that we continue to face, and more have been raised in the responses to the White Paper, not least to the proposal that the creation of hybrid embryos in vitro should not be allowed. Scientists argue strongly that hybrid embryos made through cell nuclear replacement have great potential in the development of human cell lines. As we have heard, one of the current difficulties is that human eggs available for research are in short supply. Most come from women undergoing IVF treatment. I am told that some researchers are having to wait three months for eggs before they can begin their work. Even then, the eggs released for research purposes will be those that are not regarded as suitable for fertilisation.

It is for those reasons that scientists in Newcastle have asked permission to make hybrids using adult cells and enucleated eggs from animals. The argument is that the resulting embryo—or "cybrid", as it is called—will be 99 per cent human and could be a valuable source of stem cell lines. There would never be any intention to implant such embryos, and they would be destroyed after 14 days. Such cell lines, it is argued, will be invaluable in testing drug treatments and in understanding the way diseases develop to help those suffering from a variety of genetically related diseases.

Not surprisingly, the White Paper proposal to ban hybrid embryos has raised considerable disquiet, not only from scientists but from the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee and of course from patients' groups. That is why the HFEA public consultation has been launched, and why all the implications raised by human-animal cybrids, not just the possible medical and scientific advances, need to be given careful consideration.

To my mind there are a number of key questions that need to be addressed. What course of action will be the most honouring to the dignity of human life? Will it be the prevention of human suffering by the curing or treating of disease, or will it be in recognising that human embryonic material must be treated with the utmost care, reverence and respect? In any case, are those two options to be regarded as mutually exclusive? I, for one, do not believe so.

Is it appropriate or indeed accurate to consider these hybrids as embryos, or is an adult cell that has had its genetic differentiation somehow rewound no different from the human tissue from which it was extracted, as long as it is never implanted? That is the implication, as far as I can see, of the use of the term "cybrid" rather than "embryo", and if that is the case, does it matter that the genetic rewinding was facilitated by an animal cell? Again, is it possible to define living cells and organisms simply in terms of their genetic make-up? Is it appropriate to call a cybrid 99.9 per cent human simply because that is the proportion of human DNA that it contains?

If it should be concluded that it is not right to make hybrids of human cells and enucleated animal eggs, what implications will that have for situations where animals are already being raised with small quantities of human DNA in their genetic material? I am aware, for example, of sheep that secrete human protein in their milk and of a mouse that is a model for Huntingdon's disease, both the result of human genes being incorporated into their genetic material. Are these hybrids acceptable? If they are, what is the proportion of human DNA in an animal that would constitute either an appropriate or an inappropriate hybrid?

These are complicated matters in terms of both the scientific method and the ethical issues raised. That is why the HFEA consultation must include not only scientists, medical practitioners and patients' groups but also ethicists and theologians. It is vital that future stem cell research in the UK, which will continue to pioneer new techniques if allowed, must do so within the clearly drawn boundaries and controls of a robust regulatory framework.