Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum 19

Submission from Alzheimer Scotland

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

    —  Alzheimer Scotland surveyed members and staff in 2005; a majority support stem cell and animal research into the causes and treatment of dementia.

    —  Stem cells are a vital avenue in dementia research.

    —  Alzheimer Scotland believes that it is vital for the creation of hybrid and chimera embryos for research purposes to be allowed where this is necessary and the work could not be carried out without the use of embryos.

    —  We are in agreement with the strong regulatory framework which already applies to work involving human embryos.

    —  We strongly oppose the Government's proposal not to allow the creation of hybrid and chimera embryos until some future time; this would cause unacceptable delay to the progress of dementia research.

1.  BACKGROUND

  1.1  Dementia is a devastating illness, which affects 65,000 people in Scotland at present, and 750,000 in the UK as a whole. As the population ages, the number of people with dementia is forecast to double in just over 30 years' time, by 2038. It is vital that every effort is made to find ways of preventing, postponing, treating or curing dementia, for the benefit both of those diagnosed and of society, which will otherwise be faced with the problem of providing care.

  1.2  Stem cell research is an important avenue to pursue in the search for a better understanding of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, and how they can be treated. Therapeutic cloning has the potential to provide a supply of embryonic stem cells with the genetic makeup of diseases such as hereditary forms of dementia, so as to study the genetics and biochemistry of the disease, and stems cells can be used to produce large numbers of cells which are hard to obtain in other ways, in order to test drugs.

  1.3  More basic research is also needed, in order to understand:

    —  how to get a pure sample of stem cells out of the mixture of cell types in an organ such as a brain;

    —  whether multipotent stem cells, which are limited to forming only a few types of new cell, can be persuaded to become pluripotent, with full potential to make every kind of cell;

    —  how to persuade stem cells to make the kind of new cells that are needed;

    —  how to persuade new stem cells to go to the areas where they are needed—in most kinds of dementia, the damage in the brain is not limited to one area;

    —  how to get the new cells to work with other brain cells; and

    —  how to make sure that stem cells don't keep on making too many cells, causing cancer.

  1.4  Hybrid and chimera embryos have the potential to contribute to many of these areas of work.

  1.5  As research progresses, stem cells may become important in the treatment of dementia:

    —  to get the stem cells already naturally present in the brain to replace the cells destroyed by dementia; and

    —  to put new stem cells into the brain and get them to replace the cells destroyed by dementia.

2.  RESPONSE TO PROPOSALS

  2.1  Alzheimer Scotland carried out a large-scale survey of its members and staff in 2005 to gauge attitudes towards stem cell, including that involving human embryos, and to animal research.

  2.2  The majority (76%) of respondents felt that the use of human embryos in dementia research was acceptable, with 83% agreeing with the use of donated embryos donated by couples having fertility treatment. There was less support (43%) for the use of therapeutic cloning to create a human embryo, with 22% responding "don't know".

  2.3  There was also a majority (73%) supporting the use of animals, where necessary, in dementia research.

  2.4  The use of hybrid or chimera embryos would allow more research to be done with less reliance on human eggs, and could go some way to addressing the ambivalence expressed by our membership towards therapeutic cloning of human embryos.

  2.5  Alzheimer Scotland therefore believes that it is vital for the creation of hybrid and chimera embryos for research purposes to be allowed where this is necessary and the work could not be carried out without the use of embryos. We are in agreement with the strong regulatory framework which already applies to work involving human embryos and in particular the hybrid and chimera embryos being destroyed after 14 days. We support the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority extending its responsibilities to include hybrid or chimera embryos.

  2.6  Alzheimer Scotland strongly opposes the Government's proposal not to allow the creation of hybrid and chimera embryos until some future time; this would cause unacceptable delay to the progress of dementia research.

3.  CONCLUSION

  3.1  Alzheimer Scotland supports scientific endeavours to increase understanding of the causes of dementia and seek effective treatments for it.

  3.2  Stem cell research is a welcome new avenue for scientists to explore in addition to existing areas of study, and we believe that research in the area, including the use of hybrid and chimera embryos, must be allowed to progress with careful regulation, to ensure that the best possible effort is made to find ways to prevent, alleviate or treat the illness in the future.

  3.3  We would be happy to provide any further information that the Committee would like.

January 2007





 
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