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Stem Cell Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:31 pm on 3rd May 2007.

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Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 1:31 pm, 3rd May 2007

My Lords, although I disagree with my noble friend Lord Patel about the use of human embryos for these research purposes, I congratulate him on initiating today's debate and on the way in which he introduced it.

Two seminars recently held in the Moses Room explored stem cell policy, the policy that led to our refusal to sign the 1997 European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine and aligned us in the General Assembly of the United Nations with countries such as China and Korea. In our overenthusiastic desire to become a sort of biotech El Dorado, we have become far too unquestioning about the ethical implications of what we have permitted. In other jurisdictions, such as Canada, France or Germany, scientists face prison sentences of up to seven years for what we have made legal. We cannot reduce these issues to opinion polls. Since the 1990 Act, with little regard for the special status of the human embryo, more than 1 million human embryos have been routinely manufactured, frozen, destroyed or experimented upon with only 4 per cent seeing the light of day.

Only last week, in a leader on 26 April, the Times reminded us that:

"Unfashionable as it may be to say so, destroying an embryo extinguishes the possibility of a life".

That should surely be unconscionable when alternatives are available. It is probable that we all have experience in our families of degenerative diseases and want to see medical advances. But, as Thomas Okarma, the CEO of Geron, has revealingly admitted, embryonic stem cells have value for the biotech industry for research, not for cures.

During this debate, mention has been made of the lucrative research grants. According to a Written Answer that the Minister gave me on Monday, they amount to about £100 million from the Government between now and 2008. Those grants and the money involved often skew judgments and, through conflict of interest, can compromise debate. The Minister needs to tell us clearly the division of the £100 million between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. Why have they not been treated in the even-handed way that we were told that they would be during our debates in 2002? In his Written Answer on Monday, the Minister admitted that no statistics are kept centrally on the allocation of private funds. Why? What assessment has been made of the analysis in Forbes investments journal which says that only "dumb public money" is going into embryonic stem cells? By contrast, I hope that the Minister will list some of the more than 1,200 trials and 70 diseases and conditions that have been successfully treated with adult stem cells, and tell us what therapies exist using embryonic stem cells.

At the Moses Room seminar, Dr Peter Hollands, a leading scientist involved in cord blood stem cell research, pointed to the Cinderella status of and lack of funding for treatments using adult stem cells. Cord blood is used to treat leukaemia, lymphoma, sickle cell anaemia, thalassaemia and immune system disorders. He said that it is scandalous that 98 to 99 per cent of all UK cord blood is currently incinerated or discarded and less than 1 per cent goes into the NHS public bank at Edgware. The mother of Eva Winston Hart, a seriously ill three year-old suffering from leukaemia, was at the seminar. She said that, after months of uncertainty, she has found a suitable donor in the US and is taking Eva there for treatment. Why can she not be treated here? Why are there only four NHS hospitals in the whole of the UK that are collecting cord blood, and what we are doing to create public cord banks?

Dr Carlos Lima told the same seminar how his team in Portugal has used olfactory cells taken from the nose to repair spinal damage. We saw clips of people who had previously been unable to move learning to walk again. They included British patients who had to travel to Portugal because the same treatments are not available here. Dr Lima succinctly reminded us that, "Embryonic stem cells were made to proliferate and adult stem cells were made to repair. We shouldn't use one to do the job of the other".

Professor Neil Scolding, Burden Professor and director of the Institute of Clinical Neurosciences at Frenchay Hospital, Bristol, specialises in the treatment of multiple sclerosis. He contrasted adult stem cells with embryonic stem cells and quoted the Lancet, which said that it is "ethically unacceptable" to create human embryos with no purpose other than to use them for stem cells. He said, "We know adult bone marrow stem cells are safe, it's not a guess".

Throughout our debates, advocates of using embryonic stem cells have constantly cited pluripotency as those cells' greatest asset, but what use is it if a cell is dazzlingly pluripotent if it is going to be rejected by a patient's body or, worse, if its very pluripotency creates stem cell-derived tumours? Dr Lima said that he believed that the UK had entered a blind alley, become obsessed with embryonic stem cells and had been diverted away from the much greater untapped potential of adult stem cells, which could deliver so much more for patients and which carry no moral hazards.

As we now consider whether to create cloned animal-human embryos and animal hybrids, we are entitled to have an intelligent debate in which views contrary to those driving the research are properly heard. I would like to register the strongest possible opposition to the proposals to create cloned animal-human embryos and animal hybrids, and to the hotchpotch of other proposals—to remove reference to fathers, new arrangements for surrogacy, to make human embryos available for training purposes, and to alter the genetic structure of embryos. When he comes to reply, I hope that the Minister will specifically tell us whether these new animal-human entities are to be treated as embryos under the 1990 Act, as animals under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 or as something in between. Will they have no moral status or special moral status? Is a so-called cytoplasmic hybrid human or not, or does he agree with the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, who in February told the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology that,

"no sane person could give a yes/no answer"?

In the debate in your Lordships House' in 2001, the Minister said that,

"the 1990 Act already provides the answer to the question of what happens if and when research into adult cells overtakes research using embryos: embryonic research would have to stop because the use of embryos would no longer be necessary for that research".—[Hansard, 22/1/01; col. 120.]

Many people would argue that that time has now come.