Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:43 pm on 21st November 2007.

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Photo of Lord Patel Lord Patel Crossbench 4:43 pm, 21st November 2007

My Lords, I start by taking this opportunity to congratulate Sir Martin Evans, currently of Cardiff University, who is a joint recipient of the Nobel prize for medicine and physiology for 2007. It was he who first discovered that chromosomally normal cell cultures could be established from early mouse embryos, now commonly referred to as embryonic stem cells. He was subsequently responsible for developing what are called knockout mouse models which started the new era in genetics and the immensely powerful technology of gene targeting. It is this research and methodology that now drives research workers all over the world, using stem cell research, to look for therapies for diseases.

I strongly support the Bill. I particularly welcome the proposals related to interspecies embryos and RATE. I shall comment mainly on the research aspects of the Bill and only briefly on other issues. However, before I do so, I declare an interest. I am a fellow of several of the medical royal colleges; I am a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences; vice-president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; chairman of the MRC Stem Cell Oversight Committee; chairman of the UK National Stem Cell Network; and I have been an obstetrician for more than 40 years.

Comments have been made that interspecies embryo and embryo research itself should not now be allowed because of recent developments and suggestions that we do not need it, particularly in the report related to the induced pluripotentiality of adult cells which was reported in today's newspapers and in science journals yesterday. This is far from the truth.

Let me briefly say why scientists need the ability to research using interspecies embryos. For any cell-based therapy it is always better to have an autologous source of cells—that is, cells from the patients themselves—because this avoids the problem of graft rejection. A perfect solution would be the availability of adult stem cells—every stem cell research worker in the world is chasing this Holy Grail right now—but these cells are not available. Growing adult stem cells is not easy. There are many cell types that adult stem cells are unlikely to be able to give rise to. Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, have the potential to give rise to any stem cell.

There are currently only two ways of obtaining patient specific embryonic stem cells. One is by somatic cell nuclear transfer and cytoplasmic hybrid embryos—the so-called interspecies embryos. The reason why scientists want to carry out somatic cell nuclear transfer experiments—the so-called SCNT experiments—using animal oocytes is a pragmatic one: there is not a ready supply of human oocytes and large numbers of oocytes will be required. For example, an article published in Nature, a respectable science journal, andin the newspapers last week, reported the use of rhesus monkeys and SCNT technologies to produce ES cells. This procedure used 300 eggs to obtain 30 blastocysts, and from these only two embryonic stem cell lines were obtained. So the number of human eggs required using this technology will be enormous.

Readily available animal eggs provide suitable recipients for human somatic cell nucleus. Embryonic stem cell-like cells have been obtained from rabbit enriched eggs and nucleated eggs and human skin cells. Such disease-based embryonic stem cell-like cells are ideal for studying human diseases and for the testing of small molecule drugs, which is urgently required.

There is a powerful argument for allowing interspecies embryos for research, under strict licence from HFEA, when no other means are available. Scientists who work in this kind of stem cell research are happy with that. They would much rather work in ethical surroundings and an ethically tested, regulated environment than in an open environment.

The second way of obtaining pluripotent patient specific ES cells is by the direct reprogramming of adult somatic cells into ES-like cells. Today's Times reports the findings of two research teams, one from Japan and one from Wisconsin. This procedure was carried out by a group of scientists in Japan, led by Yamanaka, and others in the USA have achieved this using mouse skin fibroblasts and adding four factors, four genes. It is a remarkable achievement. That it has come so quickly is quite astonishing. That it has required only four genes, of the many genes that might have been tested, is also quite remarkable.

One of these genes is an oncogene—a gene that causes cancer—known in technological terms as c-Myc. It induces pluripotency in the skin fibroblast. We now know that it is repeated in humans, because today's report confirms it. As I said, two papers were published yesterday, one again from Japan and one from Wisconsin, by the people who identified human embryonic stem cells a decade ago. Your Lordships are now scientifically up to date.

I wish it was all that simple. The cells that Yamanaka had derived from a rabbit's skin were rather like embryonic stem cells. He injected them into a four-stage, four-cell mouse blastocyst by taking out one of the cells from the four-cell mouse blastocyst and injecting his new stem cells. They worked and differentiated just like the natural blastocyst cells, but the mouse that developed was full of cancer tumours. The reason may have been the powerful oncogene that was used as one of the factors to induce pluripotency into the skin cell.

We cannot conduct such chimeric experiments in humans. Details of research were published just yesterday where a skin fibroblast from a human was converted into a pluripotent, rather like ES cells. Such experiments would not be permissible. We need to understand how embryonic stem cells behave to be able then to understand how to manipulate cells that we have derived from human skin to behave like pluripotent embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are the gold standard against which other pluripotent cells derived from human skin will be tested. That is the Holy Grail that every scientist chases, and it is why we must not stop research at this stage on any aspect of any stem cell research—adult, embryonic, umbilical, cold-blood, on the cord itself or any other adult cells. We must not try to block other aspects of the Bill, including those which concern fertility treatment, because it would also block research. We must allow the Bill to pass.