Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Stem Cell Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:43 pm on 3rd May 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Neuberger Baroness Neuberger Spokesperson in the Lords, Health 1:43 pm, 3rd May 2007

My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for securing this important and timely debate. We have heard from considerable experts in the field—scientific, medical, legal and ethical. I am a little nervous at winding up at this stage. We have heard the experts speak with great authority. I want to add only a few points to what has been said. I need to declare a couple of interests. I am a former member of the Medical Research Council, the General Medical Council and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and its predecessor organisations.

First, I want to emphasise the extraordinary hope that stem cell work in its variety of settings offers to people with all sorts of deeply distressing conditions. The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, made that point very strongly, as have other noble Lords. We have heard from the scientists, the doctors and the ethicists, and from the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, about the medical charities and how they have put on pressure to increase funding for this kind of research.

I want to speak from a pastoral point of view. I used to be a pastoral rabbi; these days I only do a little of that. I come from a tradition which is extremely life-affirming and where we believe that we should do everything possible to preserve life. I also come from a tradition which does not accord to the human embryo quite the status that Christian traditions have; and I think it is important to say that. However, like the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, I believe that these scientific questions are also basically religious questions, giving us cause to wonder about it all.

Nobody suggests that we should prolong life unnecessarily, but these new advances give people huge hope that we will be able to stop the degenerative disorders and cause an end to some of these deeply distressing conditions for those who suffer from them and their families. Let me give a couple of examples: Duchenne muscular dystrophy—I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester for pointing this out to me—is a distressing, disabling and ultimately life-shortening illness. Stem cell research is well under way to look at ways to prevent muscle loss after the mechanism of the stem cells has stopped working, and to see whether there is a way to repair and replace the damaged muscle cells. That research is trying to prevent the muscle loss or to replace lost fibres and to understand the biology of the satellite cells and their potential to repair and replace muscle cells.

Thus far the researchers have shown that some satellite cells are capable of making large amounts of regenerative fibres. Not all satellite cells can do that, so they need to understand which can and which cannot. That might lead to satellite cell transplantation which could treat the various dystrophies; but there is a long way to go yet. There are no instant successes or cures here. There is no hype. We have been rightly warned by several noble Lords that sometimes some of this is overhyped. There is no false hope given here, and it is right that the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, reminded us that false hope should not be given. But work is taking place and it is giving people real hope, if not in the very short term. Researchers are working on developing a way to replace the dopamine-producing nerve cells that have died in Parkinson's disease with healthy cells and on transplantation of healthy heart muscle cells for people with chronic heart disease—something that is immensely prevalent in my family from a relatively early age; so I shall be very grateful if they get on with that. They are working on slowing down the progression of type 1 diabetes by transplanting islets of Langerhans, which are the cells that specialise in the synthesis of pancreatic insulin. And so on. Previous speakers have cited examples: the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, on motor neurone disease; the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, on heart disease; and the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, on degenerative neurological disease.

For many people these techniques, which are in their very early stages of development, give hope to the individuals and their families. Many people are strongly opposed to this research, mostly for religious reasons, and we have heard from some of them today. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, raised many of the questions that disturb many people. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, made his opposition very clear to many of these advances. They believe it is wrong to use human embryos, even at the earlier stage for any purpose.

I think that the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill of Bengarve, is right to ask us to think differently and to say that these scientific advances should make us reconsider what it means to have these clusters of cells, what is truly human and what is in fact animal. Do those terms still apply as we thought they did? However, many of us probably would agree with the BMA's position that,

"if a similar level of success could be achieved using stem cells derived from adults, the use of adult rather than embryonic stem cells would be preferable because of the special status of human embryos".

But, it continues,

"at this stage it is not evident that this will ever be the case".

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, made the case clearly that we need to continue work on both adult and embryonic stem cells. But if it is right that we do not think at the moment that adult stem cells will take us to where we want and need to be to give hope to so many people, if we do not allow the use of embryonic stem cells, particularly those that go to waste, as the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, said, we would not only hamper scientific and medical research but destroy hope for many people.

It is very hard to justify a position that would destroy hope for hundreds of thousands of people. Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle, who spoke earlier, I do not believe that using human embryos sensitively and with careful regulation means that we are destroying human life. One can have scientific advance and respect for human embryos at the same time. We have a strict and careful regulatory system in this country, and other noble Lords have made it clear how very much that is respected around the world. This is what leads me to make my second point. Government have flagged up their intention in their review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act to ban the creation of hybrid and chimeric embryos.

We all know of the panic surrounding the publication of the story of two groups of scientists applying to the HFEA for licences to conduct research involving the transfer of human genetic material into animal eggs from which the nucleus had been removed. "Monsters", said the headlines; "Chimera", said the commentators. Yet this is desired only because human eggs from IVF patients are in short supply. Nor should we desire to so over-stimulate women's ovaries that they produce masses more eggs, because it is dangerous for them. It is unclear why the Government are taking this view, particularly with 200 or more charities making great representation to the Prime Minister on this issue. It would be very good to hear from the Minister the exact reason for their view, particularly given the reassurance received thus far that there could be regulations later to allow such research using animal/human embryos in specific circumstances. Is it really necessary to have such a ban in the Bill?

There is general agreement around the world that the HFEA has done an excellent job analysing complex ethical and scientific issues, and it has developed a trusted and moderate approach to its regulatory functions. It is to be hoped that its proposed successor will be able to do the same, although its remit, as the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow, has said, and other noble Lords have agreed, seems to be extraordinarily wide. There is some doubt, as the noble Lord, Lord Patel, said in his introductory speech, that it will be given sufficient resources, both in funds and expertise, to do the job. Given our success in regulating and the approach that this country has taken since the very beginning of in vitro fertilisation, with its voluntary licensing authority, which eventually became the HFEA, should we not think differently about a total ban and instead allow the regulators to regulate? The HFEA has rightly launched a public consultation, and it will be very good to hear what it comes up with.

Stem cell research is already signalling that it will bring great benefits, and we are indeed among the world's leaders in that area. In congratulating once again the noble Lord, Lord Patel, on securing the debate, I ask the Minister to reflect on whether it is really necessary to curtail scientific advance by imposing an outright ban on animal/human embryos. I also ask him what the Government will do to encourage this research, not only in terms of funding but by creating a climate of acceptance of scientific advance, even where some members of our society have real and understandable ethical concerns. Like the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, I believe that we need to think differently about how we will use all these technologies in our service design. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, I believe that most of the public are ready for all this, but I think that we need to check. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, I believe that this debate needs to be held in public, and that we need to create a climate of scientific education, scientific literacy, and an acceptance that scientific advance brings great benefits. I very much hope that the Minister can tell the House what the Government will do to ensure that this research is conducted in a climate of public debate, public education and scientific literacy.