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Stem Cell Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:20 pm on 3rd May 2007.

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Photo of Lord Harries of Pentregarth Lord Harries of Pentregarth Crossbench 1:20 pm, 3rd May 2007

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for initiating this debate on a subject of such scientific interest and importance. My entrée into the subject came as a result of having the privilege of chairing your Lordships' Select Committee on the subject for the 2001 regulations.

One key issue in the debates in the House at that time, and still an issue for a number of your Lordships, is whether the research could not be done just as well using adult stem cells rather than embryonic cells. Adult stem cells obviously do not involve either the manipulation or destruction of the early embryo and therefore do not pose the same ethical problems as embryonic stem cells. Our committee discovered then that, from a scientific point of view—and this is still the case—research on both adult and embryonic stem cells is necessary. We simply do not know which route is going to be most beneficial for future therapies, and at this stage there is some essential research that can only be carried out on embryonic stem cells. There is, for example, still a great deal to find out about the process of differentiation and dedifferentiation, whereby the pluripotent cells which we obtain from embryos become one of the 200 or so specialist cells in the human body, or about how that process is reversed, as the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, has just so strongly stressed.

I respect the position of those who argue for work on adult stem cells, and research in this area must be fully supported. Leaving aside ethical considerations for a moment, however, there is no doubt that, from a scientific point of view, work on embryonic stem cells is essential both for basic research and because it holds out great promise for at least some future therapies. As the noble Lord, Lord Patel, said right at the beginning, the two forms of research on adult stem cells and embryonic cells are complementary, not rivals.

All research on early embryos must be done under licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority; I declare an interest as a member of it and chair of its ethics and law committee. I stress two points. First, on the careful procedures that must be followed for any research licence to be granted, we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Winston, of his own unfortunate experience with the HFEA. It may be that that was some time ago. I will certainly write to the noble Lord, giving him an accurate and up-to-date picture of the amount of time a research licence application takes at the HFEA. I shall also write to the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock. I am obviously not in a position to know how long it might take to go through local ethics committees, but I do not believe that the time spent with the HFEA is undue delay. It clearly needs to be as speedy as possible.

The research licence committee must obviously consider whether the research can be permitted under the 1990 Act as modified by the 2001 regulations. In particular, it has to decide whether the research is both necessary and desirable. In short, if the research could be done in some way other than by using early embryos, then a licence cannot be granted. The procedure is a careful and testing one, although, as I say, I do not believe that it takes an undue length of time.

The fact that we have this firm regulatory framework, respected the world over, has enabled public confidence in this research to be kept and valuable research to go ahead. Researchers know that there is a clear and firm but permissive framework within which to operate so that they know where they are, which is not always the case in some other countries. Parliament will shortly be revisiting the 1990 Act, which I welcome. It is remarkable, however, how robust that Act has been. Despite major scientific advances not envisaged in 1990, it has enabled research to proceed in an orderly, controlled way. It is essential that, if and when the new regulatory body—RATE—comes into being, with its much wider remit including human tissue and blood as well as embryos, public confidence is still retained. The Royal Society has recently raised important questions about whether the expertise built up in the HFEA in such an ethically sensitive area over the years will be able to be focused and utilised in such a necessarily specialist way in a body with such a wide remit as is proposed for RATE.

Finally, from a religious perspective, the whole scientific endeavour should been seen not as a rival to religion but as a way of exploring the wonder and miracle of nature. Walt Whitman began a poem with the words:

"WHY! who makes much of a miracle?

As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles".

Many scientists, including atheistic scientists like Richard Dawkins, feel that sense of wonder. For those of us with religious beliefs, this is exploring the wonder of the divine source of the wisdom in all that.

Good research takes time. As a non-scientist, I am full of admiration for the painstaking, detailed and meticulous work which scientists do in their laboratories over many years, research which sometimes does not produce any very worthwhile results. This huge field is obviously very promising and a real gift. I think that we in this House would all wish researchers in the field well, because it will undoubtedly produce results which will ultimately enhance human health and well-being.