Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum 7

Submission from the Biosciences Federation

BACKGROUND

  The Biosciences Federation (BSF) is a single authority representing the UK's biological expertise, providing independent opinion to inform public policy and promoting the advancement of the biosciences. The Federation was established in 2002, and is actively working to influence policy and strategy in biology-based research—including funding and the interface with other disciplines—and in school and university teaching. It is also concerned about the translation of research into benefits for society, and about the impact of legislation and regulations on the ability of those working in teaching and research to deliver effectively. The Federation brings together the strengths of 42 member organisations (plus two associate members), including the Institute of Biology which represents 39 additional affiliated societies (see Appendix). This represents a cumulative membership of over 65,000 individuals, covering the full spectrum of biosciences from physiology and neuroscience, biochemistry and microbiology, to ecology, taxonomy and environmental science. The Biosciences Federation is a registered charity (No 1103894).

COMMENTS

  1.  The Biosciences Federation (BSF) fully endorses the case to support hybrid/chimera research that was submitted to the HFEA by the signatories of the letter to the Times.

  2.  The BSF is firmly of the view that the current understandable shortage of human eggs is severely limiting the development of research that may have very significant benefits to some patients. This problem is unlikely to be resolved.

  3.  Furthermore, in the unlikely event that human egg supply could improve there would be insufficient material for the clinical purposes that underlie the current and proposed research programmes.

  4.  Therefore new routes for the development of human stem cells for therapeutic purposes are urgently needed if this long talked about remediation of serious illness is to be realised. The proposed use of (probably) bovine cells for manipulation of human nuclei is an example of a novel route to overcome the bottlenecks described above. There is misunderstanding about what this new approach involves and this has contributed to the current debate.

  5.  The first point to note is that embryos derived from these cells would be neither hybrids nor chimeras. The only nuclear DNA would be derived from the inserted human nuclei and it is the expression of this DNA that determines phenotype. All cells in the developing embryo would have the same human DNA contributing to the phenotype.

  6.  In the event that the human nuclei was inserted into the bovine cell with its cytoplasm in situ, there would be bovine mitochondria present and therefore bovine DNA. However this mitochondrial DNA does not have the same role in development as nuclear (in this case, human) DNA and would not contribute to the phenotype. In any case, it may be possible to remove the bovine cytoplasm and replace it with the cytoplasm from the cell providing the human DNA.

  7.  It would be wrong to imagine that this novel approach will automatically and rapidly bring us the prospect of clinical trials for therapeutic stem cells. It may, but there is much to find out.

  8.  For example, although we have two copies of each gene there are many important developmental situations in which one copy is switched off. If both copies are switched on development is abnormal. This is an example of genetic imprinting and there is good evidence that the cytoplasm has a role in establishing the pattern of imprints. In all work of this type it is essential to know that the imprints are either normal or that the changes are known and controlled. The proposed experiments are a wonderful way to investigate this matter and provide better understanding about how the production of human stem cells can be regulated.

  9.  Because there is so much to do and such high hope amongst patients, the BSF urges that this period of uncertainty is brought to a rapid conclusion and that the work be allowed to proceed. In the UK there are some excellent research teams working in this area—but not many. They would be an attractive proposition for competitors—especially in SE Asia.

January 2007


 
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