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Stem Cell Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:19 pm on 3rd May 2007.

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Photo of Lord Turnberg Lord Turnberg Labour 12:19 pm, 3rd May 2007

I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Patel, on securing this debate, although having listened to him and subsequent speakers I am beginning to feel slightly redundant. I will press on.

My position both as a clinical scientist and as a physician on the value of research using embryonic stem cells is clearly in favour: as a physician because when I practised medicine I was faced every day with patients desperate for cures for diseases for which I could only hope to palliate; and as a scientist because I see research as the only way in which it will be possible to answer patients' needs in the future.

As we have heard, research on stem cells shows promise for many patients. Clearly, they will not be the answer to all our ills, but they have the potential to help patients with some pretty nasty diseases. But today I want to concentrate my remarks on the views of the Association of Medical Research Charities of which I have had the pleasure of being the scientific advisor for some years.

Well over 100 charities belong to the AMRC, all of which fund medical research. Some are very large, such as Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation, the Arthritis Research Campaign, some are medium sized, such as the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, Parkinson's Disease Society, Alzheimer's Disease Society and Diabetes UK and some are quite small, but vital for the patients whom they are concerned about, such as the Motor Neurone Disease Society, Epilepsy Research Foundation, Muscular Dystrophy Campaign and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

They all have in common the need to support research into the causes and treatments of diseases for which they raise money, largely from the public. Collectively, they fund more than £700 million per annum—which is larger than the Medical Research Council's contribution. If you add up all the diseases that they cover—cancer, stroke, heart attacks, diabetes, Parkinson's disease and so forth—you cover a very large proportion of the population either as sufferers or carers. Scarcely a family is not affected by one or more of those diseases.

All these charities are desperate to support good research. They do not all fund research into stem cells, although a considerable proportion does. They all believe that research using embryonic stem cells is sufficiently promising for them to be very concerned if that research was to be prevented.

These charities have their fingers very much on the pulse of public opinion. Most rely on public support to fund them and have lay trustees, and many have active public and patient involvement programmes. They know how much those who experience the reality of suffering disease support research of this type, which is inevitably going to be at the edge of existing knowledge. Of course, they want research on stem cells to be well regulated, ethical and carefully planned, so that results can be relied on. Transparent regulation of a high standard—of which I hope the HFEA will be capable—is vital, but it will be important not to fetter the HFEA on the basis of misunderstandings of the science.

One example is the use of eggs derived from animals. These are the eggs from which the nucleus containing all the genes which make an animal an animal has been removed, leaving an empty cell to act as a nest which can provide the protective and supportive environment into which a human cell nucleus can be placed. No mixing of the relevant human and animal genes is involved. A human cell line is developed from these cells which can be used for research into the causes and treatments of serious diseases. The cells are not allowed in any case to develop into embryos beyond the 14-day stage. The sole reason for using empty animal cells is, as has been described, because of the great paucity of human eggs for research. The animal egg cell is an attractive and, to my mind, entirely ethical alternative.

A number of applications are currently before the HFEA for research using stem cells in this way. They are from Newcastle, King's College and Edinburgh for research into diseases such as motor neurone disease, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. I hope— and, much more importantly, the patients hope—that this research will be encouraged rather than discouraged.