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Stem Cell Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:39 pm on 3rd May 2007.

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Photo of Lord St John of Bletso Lord St John of Bletso Crossbench 1:39 pm, 3rd May 2007

My Lords, I join others in thanking my noble friend Lord Patel for introducing this topical and controversial debate. Unlike my noble friend Lord Alton of Liverpool, I am a great supporter of stem cell research, but I do not claim to be an expert and it is awesome to be speaking in such a long line of distinguished experts on this subject. For me, the key point in the wording of the Motion we are debating is,

"the potential benefits of stem cell research", which relate to their regenerative ability to treat future generations. I entirely agree with my noble friend Lady Finlay of Llandaff, who said that fantasy has fuelled scaremongering about stem cell research. Having said that, I entirely agree with the reasonable call of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, that there should be greater public understanding of stem cell research.

My interest stems from seeing my 91 year-old mother suffer from a degenerative and degrading disease, and my desire that similar patients should have the chance through stem cell therapy to have a better quality of life. I have neither desire nor intention to debate the moral and controversial issues of embryonic stem cell research. My noble friend Lord Patel in his outstanding introduction mentioned that clear distinctions need to be made between different types of stem cells. I am interested in adult stem cell research and umbilical cord stem cells, which have been extensively researched around the world for several decades with no apparent ethical issues regarding obtaining them.

It is well known that the United Kingdom has permissive rules for embryonic stem cell research, but it is less clear about the policy on adult and umbilical cord blood stem cells, which are closer to application in patients. Given the extensive data on these cells, what is Her Majesty's Government's policy for doctors using this technology in the UK? I gather that we are a few years away from definitive stem cell therapy using adult and umbilical cord blood stem cells. As we all know, many patients are now in desperate need with dementia, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and motor neurone disease, among many other ailments. My noble friends Lady Greenfield and Lord Sutherland spoke of the enormous costs of caring for these patients, and the enormous pain that not just their families but their carers go through. I commend the work of the AMRC, which supports the campaign about the need for and the potential therapeutic benefits of stem cell research.

There are already extensive clinical trials with a variety of stem cells, most notably in heart repair, including phase 1 FDA safety tests from the Johns Hopkins University in the United States in 2003, as well as similar trials in Germany, which show a clear clinical benefit for heart regeneration. As these tests have been successfully completed, why do we need to repeat them with neurological patients? While I agree that it is important to regulate therapy, are we not protecting these patients to death? They have a parlous quality of life with limited treatments available. Should we not now be exploring first-generation stem cell therapy, perhaps on a named patient basis?

If time permitted I would have liked to explore the potential benefits of stem cell research and therapy to the underdeveloped world, particularly in Africa, where my passion lies. I have no doubt that we shall have more opportunities to debate this topical subject.

Clearly stem cell research is moving in the right direction. However, we need to support and streamline research. Research needs to be promoted and not restricted. I share the views of my noble friend Lady Warnock, who urges that we should move to the next stage of clinical outcomes.

Finally, in the words of my noble friend Lord Crisp, I hope that the Government will not sit on the fence.