Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1100 - 1110)

WEDNESDAY 24 NOVEMBER 2004

PROFESSOR ROBERT EDWARDS, PROFESSOR CATHERINE PECKHAM AND PROFESSOR HENRY LEESE

  Q1100  Mr Key: For an awful lot of people—and we have listened to a lot of them in this Committee, both in Sweden and in Italy—it is all about the potential of development into a human life. Some people define an embryo as that, the potential to develop into life. Does that come into your thinking?

  Professor Leese: It is a continuum; it is one stage on a continuum; it is a developmental process.

  Professor Edwards: You have two problems: you have to define human life and I would not like to do that either. Secondly, you can have a human life at birth and that is a definite life from an embryo that has been injected with a donor nucleus. In rabbits and rats, cloned embryos are normal and full term. So, cloning is coming in two species. So, you have embryos that have never seen a sperm or never seen an egg Well, they have seen an egg but they have never seen a chromosome division in the egg. To ask for a definition is very difficult.

  Professor Leese: I thought of this as a subtext in which you have three weeks and 10,000 words, frankly. It is very difficult to define it here and now. I accept that, for operational terms, it probably does need defining and I am sure whoever redefines the act will do a first-rate job on it.

  Professor Edwards: Perhaps your Committee could do it.

  Q1101  Chairman: You were trying to help us but you are not being too helpful at the minute!

  Professor Leese: My response would always be to seek advice and I would put it to the professional bodies first of all and see what they say.

  Q1102  Chairman: But you admit that it is a problem.

  Professor Leese: I do not think it is as big a problem as you make out.

  Q1103  Chairman: We are not making out that it is a problem, we are asking you a question.

  Professor Edwards: I would say candidly that we in our field, within all these things we are talking about, when it is written, we understand what is meant.

  Q1104  Chairman: The world moves on.

  Professor Edwards: Yes and I think any attempt to start to apply a new name would lead to much verbiage. This is what I fear—pre-embryo has disappeared.

  Chairman: We are talking to you about the public and constituents out there.

  Q1105  Dr Harris: I just want to ask you about this idea of haploidisation to create effects of the artificial gametes. Is it your understanding that that could be useful? It is permitted subject to licence at the moment or would it not count as a gamete under the HFE Act?

  Professor Edwards: It is now done in rabbits and rats, NT goes to full term and normally, as far as I can see . . . I hesitate because I do not have the evidence but I am told that this is true. It means that we can start to think of doing this instead of doing things such as collecting testicular sperm where you almost shred the testes to get the rare sperm out. You would simply get a drop of blood and use that instead. It probably brings the descent of the male a little further than his rather poor performance in my field because it would not be sperm. I do not know how it would go down! I think that a lot of people would get advantage from it. I am being 100% serious here. If all couples where there were no gametes in one of them could use this technique, it could be very helpful to a lot of people worldwide, an awful lot of people. I cannot be more definite than that.

  Professor Leese: But it would have to be tested exhaustively for safety and epigenetic effects, the potential damage if you went down this novel route. That is what I would say in terms of the regulatory body. There is great novelty but the testing required would be immense to ensure healthy offspring etcetera.

  Q1106  Dr Harris: If it were shown to be safe, do you think it should be licensable, regulated and allowed both for infertile couples, in the way you have described Professor Edwards, and indeed same sex couples?

  Professor Edwards: Yes, I would say definitely. I think it would be a very valuable clinical tool to help a lot of unfortunate people.

  Q1107  Dr Harris: There are rules saying that embryonic stem cells should only be used in the regulations for the treatment of serious disease and there may be situations where embryonic stem cells and use of embryos could be used to treat infertility such as deriving gametes, for example, from embryonic stem cells. Do you think that infertility is a serious disease that should be covered by the terms of that condition if we keep that condition?

  Professor Edwards: We have known that embryo stem cells will produce gametes since 1968 when we transferred them to see if embryos would produce gametes, so there is no problem. The question is, what quality are they? I think I agree with Henry totally. I would want detailed analyses on growing gametes in vitro because they undergo very detailed molecular changes—I do not want to go into them—which might be affected.

  Q1108  Dr Harris: My question was that you can only do this research, even just checking it for whether it is viable or not, using embryos and embryonic stem cells for serious disease and would you consider deriving gametes to treat infertility to come into the remit of serious disease to justify, under the existing regulations, licensing that activity?

  Professor Edwards: I have always thought that infertility is a very serious disease. It is not classified as a disease, it is a condition, but I think anything we do to help any infertile couple would be wonderful. I can actually talk about the current status of spermatic cell haploidisation. It is not working. It appears to be more complex than cloning. Maybe there are some extra things to learn that we do not know already and I think it will be some years down the line if it does come.

  Q1109  Dr Iddon: One last controversial question while we have such an eminent panel in front of us, if I may say so. Professor Edwards, do you think we can draw the line between research on these interesting new technologies and eugenics?

  Professor Edwards: Again, it depends what we mean by eugenics. Eugenics was started in the 1870s by an English geneticist who had the welfare of mankind in his mind. The work became degraded after 1930 caused by the Nazis but also by various other things where people were found not to be behaving themselves fully correctly in relation to the way they abused their children. So, the word became degraded and it is a word that you have to be very careful about using today for this reason: you cannot use this word in Germany, for example. It is impossible to go there. You have to say exactly what you are trying to do. I think we can define what we want to do without using that term and I think we can make it clear to people what we want to do without using that term. I would love to show you the minutes of our meeting last week when these things were discussed in great detail when you would have seen that the problem is complicated but could be solved.

  Q1110  Dr Iddon: Is that the view of the other two witnesses?

  Professor Leese: If I recall the question, I think my answer would be "yes" and that you simply need a strong regulatory body that keeps people on board.

  Professor Peckham: I think it is very difficult and you would have to be very, careful when you use it because you have to separate the two and not let them merge. I agree that you have to be very careful.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for helping us wrestle with the very difficult remits of today. You can be sure that the new science that is coming through will be part of our report, so your evidence has been quite crucial to help in that. Thank you very much indeed





 
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