Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum 31

Submission from the British Medical Association

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  1.  The British Medical Association (BMA) is disappointed with the Government's intention, as set out in the White Paper, to prohibit the creation of hybrid and chimera embryos for research purposes. The use of animal oocytes as a vessel in which to develop human embryonic stem cells would help to overcome the severe shortage of human eggs for research aimed at improving the technique of cell nuclear replacement and the development of human embryonic stem cells. It would also make it possible to develop stem cell lines with established genetic mutations, providing a model for studying serious medical conditions.

  2.  Prohibiting the creation of hybrid embryos would cause serious delay to this very important research. The UK has legislation making it a criminal offence to replace such embryos into a woman, and a regulatory system to ensure that the research is subject to close scrutiny, which provide the necessary safeguards to prevent abuse. The BMA hopes the Government will revise its position and allow this research to proceed so that the maximum benefit can be accrued.

ABOUT THE BMA

  3.  The BMA is an independent trade union and voluntary professional association which represents doctors from all branches of medicine all over the UK. It has a total membership of over 138,000.

IN RESPONSE TO THE COMMITTEE'S INQUIRY

  4.  The BMA is strongly supportive of embryonic stem cell research. This research, carried out under the control of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), has the potential to improve our understanding of and treatment for many very serious medical conditions.

  5.  Most embryo research uses embryos left over from IVF treatment that have been donated for research. These are few in number and are usually of poor quality. There are a very small number of good quality oocytes available for stem cell research and even with the HFEA's recent decisions to allow both egg sharing for research and altruistic donation of oocytes for research by those not undergoing treatment, the numbers will remain low.

  6.  In the BMA's view, the use of animal oocytes as a "vessel" in which to develop human embryonic stem cells provides an acceptable alternative. It would overcome the severe shortage of human oocytes available for research and permit the development of cell lines from individuals with the condition that is being studied.

  7.  The White Paper does not give any reasons for prohibiting this research, except some fear that the public may have concerns, particularly about the possibility of creating pregnancies using hybrid embryos and bringing those pregnancies to term. Given that it is already a criminal offence (Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001) to replace such an embryo into a woman, it is not clear why those unfounded concerns should be used to justify a prohibition on this important research.

  8.  Most of those who have publicly expressed concern about the creation of hybrid embryos are those who are opposed to any use of human embryos for research and their opposition needs to be understood in this context. The BMA, however, supports human embryo research and can see no reason for affording greater status and protection to a hybrid embryo than to embryos created using human oocytes and CNR (indeed, it could be argued that they should have less status and protection since it is not clear that they are "human"). Given that the UK Parliament has decided to permit embryo research, in votes both in 1990 and in 2001, it is difficult to understand the reasoning behind the proposed prohibition.

  9.  The Government has expressed its support for embryonic stem cell research and is keen for the UK to maintain its position as a world leader in this area. It seems contradictory then to prohibit one important aspect of this research, simply because of a concern about possible "public unease". (The views of a small number of self-selecting individuals, who clearly hold strong views on the issue, should not be interpreted as representative of the population as a whole.) The public is very supportive of stem cell research and, if given clear and proper information about what is proposed, and the safeguards that are in place, the BMA believes the public will accept this research.

  10.  The HFEA has suggested that there is disagreement within the scientific community about the need for and benefits of this research; we are not aware of such disagreement about the need for this research. As with any area of research, the benefits, or otherwise, will be a matter that can only be clearly determined after the research has taken place. Reports of advances using others sources of stem cells do not diminish the need to continue to pursue research into the development of embryonic stem cells.

  11.  The BMA believes there are strong arguments for allowing the creation of hybrid and chimera embryos for research purposes only, under the regulation of the HFEA. We believe that banning such work would seriously damage this important area of research, undermine the hopes of those who suffer from serious diseases and risk the UK's status as world-leaders in stem cell research. We support the view of the Science and Technology Committee, set out in its report on reproductive technologies and the law, that this research should be permitted and subject to licensing by the HFEA. We hope the Government will revise its position on this matter.

January 2007





 
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