Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1140 - 1158)

WEDNESDAY 24 NOVEMBER 2004

PROFESSOR ROGER PEDERSEN, PROFESSOR ALISON MURDOCH AND DR ROBIN LOVELL-BADGE

  Q1140  Dr Iddon: Yes.

  Dr Lovell-Badge: There are three: there would be chimeras, there would be co-culture and there would be the nuclear transfer as well.

  Q1141  Dr Iddon: Well, how long do we have?

  Dr Lovell-Badge: Let us start with the nuclear transfer experiments going across species and there have been lots of attempts at this mostly in China taking, for example, human somatic cell nuclei and putting them into rabbit eggs. That was used to derive embryonic stem cells which, according to the work published, have all the properties of human embryonic stem cells. The reason for doing those experiments was simply to get over the shortage of having human cell lines and that seems to me to be a perfectly good reason for doing it. You can imagine other reasons for trying to do this. There was a paper published recently where people, again in China, had taken cells from early chicken embryos and put them into rabbit enucleated eggs and they claimed to get blastocysts from those. A lot of this work has not been easy, so it is to be taken with a pinch of salt. I think that as long as that sort of work is done for purely experiments in culture, I see no real problem.

  Q1142  Dr Harris: The Chinese thing is unlawful in this country at the moment.

  Dr Lovell-Badge: Is it? I do not know that.

  Professor Murdoch: Yes, it is.

  Dr Lovell-Badge: I have asked and have never received an answer.

  Professor Murdoch: I understood that it was.

  Dr Lovell-Badge: You are not using any human gametes. I guess you would have to call it a sort of human embryo at one point.

  Professor Murdoch: I may be wrong. It is actually that you cannot put an embryo into an animal which is not the same thing.

  Dr Lovell-Badge: So, I think it probably is. It is possibly regulated by the Home Office and Procedures Act.

  Chairman: Does that help you, Brian?

  Q1143  Dr Iddon: Not really! It is obviously a very experimental area and it needs further looking at.

  Professor Murdoch: One issue that is important is that, if we are going to develop stem cells of a therapeutic product, then we actually need to be growing them and deriving embryonic stem cells from embryos in an animal-free environment which at the present time is difficult to do. So, from that point of view, we need to separate them out. Just because there is always the risk potentially of making a therapeutic product that has animal . . .

  Dr Lovell-Badge: That is also the co-culture thing. Most people have today made their human embryonic stem cell lines, growing them on feeder cells from the mouse but that situation has changed.

  Q1144  Dr Iddon: It looks as if there might be a clash of legislation, and Parliament will obviously have to deal with that.

  Dr Lovell-Badge: The third type of experiment is the chimeras if you want me to talk about that too which is where you are deliberately trying to mix cells from two different species. For example, we know that with mouse embryonic cells, if you introduce those back into an early mouse embryo, they will contribute to the development of that embryo and will give you a live born animal with a mixture of cells derived from the embryo and cells that were in culture. So, it has been proposed that people might want to do these experiments to test whether, for example, embryonic human stem cells are also really and truly pluripotent, that they can give rise to all sorts of cell types by transferring them into the embryo of another species. I personally think that this is very unlikely to work taking the embryonic stem cells themselves. However, I think there are good reasons for making chimeras at later stages where you have a particular cell type that you want to, if you like, replace in the mouse. Perhaps you want to humanise the mouse in order that that mouse has a particular set of cells, like the immune system, which is then derived from humans. And then you can use them for study as a model of human diseases.

  Q1145  Chairman: This is a good lecture!

  Dr Lovell-Badge: I am sorry, I will stop. There are good reasons for doing it is all I am saying.

  Q1146  Dr Iddon: That is what we were looking for.

  Professor Pedersen: Can I respond in the spirit, I think, of your question as to whether there would be any further regulation needed with respect to these proposed experiments. I think that, in the first instance, they would be precluded from clinical use because they combine what we have to avoid, namely animal product contribution to medical material, so nobody would use that ultimately in clinical use and I do not think there are any additional regulations needed beyond that disincentive.

  Q1147  Dr Iddon: Let me finish by trying to provoke you. We have had other witnesses in front of us who have said that the stem cell scientists are overselling the benefits of stem cell research and the chances of helping people with various diseases is pretty small. I am giving you a chance to react to those witness statements which we have on the record.

  Professor Pedersen: I would like to react. I think it is entirely self-evident that blood stem cells are clinically effective because they have been in use for decades now clinically to treat people if they are undergoing chemotherapy or have had forms of anaemia for example, but the difficulty of extending that therapy to other tissues is that we cannot grow those adult stem cells in a Petri dish. They simply do not grow. When you take them out of the body, they start growing and specialise and that is even true of blood stem cells. So, how we expand this field of knowledge is to study what we can study in fact and that is embryonic stem cells which grow in a Petri dish and have the capacity to turn into every tissue of the body which means that the other stem cells . . . What we expect is to break this entire field of knowledge open by studying embryonic stem cells. This is an area where we know exceptionally little at this present time, that is to say how our body works as an organised system. It is like any field of knowledge at the very beginning, you cannot guarantee where it is going to deliver but we can say with certainty that it will deliver. It will probably deliver vastly in excess of our narrow expectation which is simply transplantation. What we probably will discover is how to get our body stem cells to perform better in their place and that is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. If I now may take just a moment to finish . . .

  Q1148  Chairman: Please try and be brief.

  Professor Pedersen: In the interests of having this goldmine as heart of the knowledge-based economy, I think it is exceptionally important not to make the mistake that the US has made which is not simply to put negative regulation in the way of the research but to keep changing the policy. The volatility, in my mind, is what has lost the advance of this research in the States. It is because it changes with every administration and I would therefore caution you against making unnecessary changes in the regulatory structure because it is the stability of regulation that allows people to go out with confidence and invest their lives and their student's lives in this research area.

  Q1149  Dr Iddon: While we have you on this stand, can I just remind the Committee that, in the American elections just gone, stem cells featured quite prominently in the debate leading up to the election. Would you be hesitant if that happened in the next General Election which is imminent in Britain and could you defend yourselves on the general public's platform to defend the work you are doing if it happened here and would you welcome a debate during a General Election campaign in Britain?

  Professor Pedersen: I would certainly welcome it. It seems unlikely in view of the fact that both major parties—

  Q1150  Dr Harris: Both?

  Professor Pedersen: Forgive me!

  Q1151  Dr Harris: You are forgiven!

  Professor Murdoch: In terms of the American debate, the polls in America suggested that 70-80% of the population supported stem cell research despite the stands that were taken within the debate and I am sure that it is at least the same in the UK. I would be really surprised if there is a polarisation of views considering that Parliament has already debated and voted on this issue relatively recently. I do not think it would help in moving us forward to have that issue raised in a public debate. The issue we are talking about of stem cells being overhyped raises two issues. The first, which I think is important, is that we recognise the timescale involved and that sometimes the media will say that a cure for Parkinson's is going to happen tomorrow and it is not. There is a huge amount of work to do and, if we raise expectations too soon and if we move to clinical trials too soon—

  Q1152  Dr Iddon: We have been told five years in this session.

  Professor Murdoch: That is fine but that message is sometimes not getting over to the people who are against it. I think sometimes you need to recognise the position of the people who say it is hype. If you come from the viewpoint that there should not be IVF and there should not be embryo research and that is why you should not be a member of stem cell research, you have to be clear where those views come from.

  Dr Lovell-Badge: Do not forget also the research purpose of using embryonic cells. You can use embryonic stem cells to study genetic diseases and you can use them to try and find alternative ways of curing people than as transplants.

  Q1153  Mr McWalter: Your remarks about elections, the public and so on connects with my earlier point which was to try and get some sense of ownership of the wider public of some of this stuff because, to be honest, that 22% for whom it was an issue, that, for them, often is the number one issue and so they discount everything else. They are like foxhunters. They discount everything else. That is the only issue they are going to vote on and that is the one they go on and I think that, from that point of view, even if it is a minority of people, it is extraordinarily electorally potent and that is why we need to make sure that there is much greater public understanding and public ownership of both the ethical and the scientific basis of a lot of the materials we have talked about today.

  Professor Murdoch: I would entirely agree and I spend a lot of my time talking to various people about it.

  Dr Iddon: At the moment, licence applications and the peer review of those licence applications are dealt with by the HFEA without transparency and one of the criticisms that we have had from other witnesses is that the whole process should be transparent. Of course, the Freedom of Information Act is about to impinge upon us in January next year. Is there concern among professionals that the whole process will have to become transparent, the licensing application and the peer review reports or not?

  Q1154  Chairman: You will have to see the reports.

  Professor Murdoch: I am being careful what I say because of the legal issues that are going on at the present time in terms of the process. I do not have any problem. There is nothing that we have given to the HFEA in terms of any research licence applications that we have put through that I would consider could not be available in the public domain.

  Dr Iddon: I am pleased to hear that.

  Q1155  Chairman: I was just thinking that, since Norwich MPs have a great relationship with Prince Charles, if we could get him to speak out for stem cell research, it would be game, set and match but I have my doubts at the minute. Do you think there is duplication of ethical and scientific review processes? Do you think they could be combined better or do you think they are kept very separate for a good reason?

  Professor Murdoch: The ethical procedures have been changed enormously over the last five years and have been tightened up. There is a 60-paged document that I have to fill in to get local Ethics Committee approval for these sort of procedures and all the consent forms have to be approved by them. So, for them to be looked at again by a separate authority could end up with a situation where someone does not like that word, it goes back to the other person, they change that sentence and you could just bounce backwards and forwards. There should be one organisation that does that but, having sat on a local Ethics Committee for some time, I do not think they have the expertise to deal with some of the scientific issues that relate to whether the procedures we are dealing with are legal.

  Q1156  Chairman: Do you have confidence that the HFEA comes to an informed judgment on that basis? You have been singing their praises, international stars and so on. Can they make that judgment best in this country in terms of licensing and taking the scientific evidence?

  Professor Murdoch: Which judgment? Whether there should be a licence or not?

  Q1157  Chairman: Yes as an example. Do you have great confidence in them being able to assimilate all this data and make a judgment? Are they the organisation to do it?

  Professor Murdoch: There has to be an act of Parliament that regulates to a certain extent what we do and therefore there will have to be an authority that implements that Act. I do have some concerns about the process that the HFEA goes through at the present time. I would not sing its praises 100%. There are lots of things that could be improved. I think it is slow. It is over-bureaucratic because it is necessary to do that because of the legal requirements it has to fulfil in its due process. The procedures for inspection and for reports are a negative influence in terms of research. The particular research with stem cells is only one form of research. If you are talking about research relating to basic ART techniques, I think that regulation is very disinhibitory to basic research that goes on in the laboratory and could be improved. I would not want to say that the HFEA is perfect by any means. There are lots of things that could be improved.

  Q1158  Chairman: Would you concur with that, Robin? Yes or no?

  Dr Lovell-Badge: Yes.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. I am sorry to bring it to an end but thank you very much for coming, it has been very helpful. I know that it is a tortuous process for you but thank you very much for answering our questions enthusiastically and, I think, accurately. Thank you very much.





 
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