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Stem Cell Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:26 pm on 3rd May 2007.

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Photo of Lord Rees of Ludlow Lord Rees of Ludlow Crossbench 1:26 pm, 3rd May 2007

My Lords, we should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for introducing this important and timely debate. As he emphasised, stem cells are crucial to understanding how living things develop. They offer immense long-term medical promise, but pose issues of special sensitivity in which the entire public have legitimate concerns.

I am a scientist but, unlike other noble Lords speaking in the debate, a lay man in respect of these technicalities. The Royal Society, of which I have the honour to be president, is actively engaged with the world's leading researchers in stem cells. Many of them are among our fellows. We have strong engagement with the policy and ethical issues and in advising on research priorities and protocols.

The regulatory framework in the UK, stemming from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, is widely admired internationally. It evolved from a broad consensus, brought about by effective dialogue and engagement between scientists, parliamentarians, ethicists and the wider public, led by some distinguished Members of this House. It was a model for how to regulate any research field involving safety and ethical concerns, but the science has moved on. There are consequently ever more ambiguities on how the existing guidelines should be applied.

The challenge to the regulators was exemplified by the HFEA's stalling response on the issue of cybrid embryos earlier this year. We must cope with the idea that the everyday concept of species is blurred and unhelpful at the level of a gene, even of a single cell. It is not obvious what embryos should be classed as human and what should not, nor what groups of cells should be classed as embryos. In clarifying such conundrums, we will benefit from the kind of public engagement that has served so well in forging the present framework. I endorse everything that was said so eloquently about public consultation by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy. As a contribution to this end, the Royal Society has just produced a short document, in simple Q&A format, which should help the media and general public to understand the issues underlying cybrid research.

The cybrid issue exemplifies how the demands made on the HFEA are becoming ever more arduous as the science advances. In that context, we in the Royal Society have anxieties about some aspects of the Government's White Paper. In particular, we are uneasy about the proposal to set up a single Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos, with the acronym RATE, combining the role of the HFEA with that of the Human Tissue Authority. This new authority would regulate human reproductive technologies, including the use of human gametes and embryos for treatment and research, but it would also deal with the HTA's current agenda—human bodies, body parts and tissues—and oversee transplantation and blood transfusion issues. The Royal Society's concerns are shared by the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Wellcome Trust. We feel that a single body, as envisaged in the White Paper, cannot feasibly cover its huge remit without either diluting its expertise or delegating most key judgments to an infrastructure of expert panels.

However, I would like to end on an upbeat note. When the history of science is written, stem cells will surely rank as a highlight. This decade's discoveries are just the beginning. It is a research field where the UK has pioneering achievements and retains world standing. We have escaped the strident politicisation and polarisation that bedevils the field in the US, and we have avoided the down sides—inadequate regulation or dubious ethical standards—that may taint research in some other parts of the world. We should sustain our research groups so that they remain a magnet for mobile talent in the face of growing international competition for that talent. To do so is surely good for UK science. More than that, it would be good for a field that, sensitively handled, promises great hope for human welfare. For all those reasons, we should welcome this debate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for obtaining it.