Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


31 JANUARY 2007

  Q20  Chairman: We will come back to returning them to the uterus later, but keeping the embryo for 14 days is perfectly okay for you.

  Dr Armstrong: It is more than enough for my purposes.

  Q21  Chairman: Professor Smith, would you echo that? Can you see any value in going beyond that?

  Professor Smith: At the present time, certainly I can see no value because, as Lyle has said, there is no evidence that an embryo of any mammalian species can develop to any useful stage without implantation in the uterus which would occur before 14 days in humans.

  Q22  Dr Spink: I am going to go back to first base just to set the context. Nothing of course is certain in research but I wonder if you could set out for me the potential benefits for mankind generally that you see for stem cell research around the world, Professor Shaw. Would you give us the broad backdrop of that?

  Professor Shaw: We are looking to make disease specific cell lines. The challenge for us, certainly in the field of Motor Neurone Disease which I principally work in, is that, in 20 years, we have only discovered one gene which accounts for approximately 5% of all cases. That is like dealing with one piece of a jigsaw puzzle; you really do not know the total picture. When we discover a gene like this—in this case it is called SODI—what we do in the laboratory is put that into stem cells, so that we can grow up millions of cells and study the disease mechanism. That is what I do; that is what my laboratory does; we are modelling the disease using stem cell lines. What nuclear transfer does is that it says okay, we do not need to go down that very long and laborious gene hunting route, we can actually use the gene defect that exists in every patient's cells and derive stem cells from that. So, they already carry the gene defect that we know causes this disease and then we can direct it to become the kind of cell that is important. What that allows us to do is to generate billions and billions of cells to study in the simplest way. We are not studying tiny embryo of a few cells or some patient's tissue. I think that the opportunities that are there are vast, almost any disease that has a genetic basis.

  Q23  Dr Spink: So, this may or may not lead to some sort of better treatment or cure for that particular disease?

  Professor Shaw: Absolutely.

  Q24  Dr Spink: And we are talking about some of the world's most terrifying diseases that affect millions and millions of people.

  Professor Shaw: Indeed.

  Q25  Dr Spink: So, there is massive potential benefit if it comes off.

  Professor Shaw: Huge potential benefit.

  Q26  Dr Spink: You of course know because you suffer from it like we do as politicians that the public mistrust science and they mistrust politicians. You can laugh but we are both scientists and politicians, so we get it both ways! Why are the disease lobby groups not coming forward to lobby to change public opinion in this country as they have done in America?

  Professor Shaw: I think that they are. The Motor Neurone Disease Association has strongly supported our work from the outset; they supported us when we applied originally to use human oocytes and they have supported us subsequently to use animal oocytes. Obviously they need to be careful about the way in which they present themselves, but certainly we have not had any resistance from them and have indeed had active backing for our work. I have not met any particular anxieties or concerns from the associations with whom I have contact.

  Q27  Dr Spink: It is my job to get a little context on the record, as it were, for the Committee. Would you each give us a little example of your knowledge of this sort of work/research that is going on around the world in different areas in different countries?

  Dr Armstrong: The principal groups which are working on interspecies cloning seem to mostly exist in China at this present time. The most poignant example of course of that was nearly four years ago now with Professor Huizhen Sheng at the University of Shanghai who produced, so she claims, human embryonic stem cell lines.

  Q28  Chairman: Do you not believe her?

  Dr Armstrong: I do but the experiments have never been repeated, which is a crucial thing. There is probably a very good reason for that and that is because, when Professor Sheng produced her results, it was immediately overshadowed by the apparently very good data coming out of South Korea. So, it is quite possible that she thought that there was no future benefit in going ahead with this work because human nuclear transfer into human oocytes is so apparently simple, but of course, as we all know now, that is not the case. I think that it is high time that we revisited Dr Sheng's work.

  Q29  Dr Spink: We will be following that line of inquiry and we will be seeing the Koreans this week and the Chinese people probably next week, so we will be following those lines. Thank you for that. Do you have any other examples of this research going on around the world?

  Professor Shaw: I think that in many countries and certainly in the United States where, although you cannot get the state funding for this sort of work, I do not think there is a law that actually bans this work.

  Q30  Dr Spink: Not at all.

  Professor Shaw: I think there will be others in many countries doing this sort of work and think that is important to do. I certainly would not want them to stop doing it, but I think that Britain would definitely be much less competitive in this field in terms of science.

  Q31  Dr Spink: Professor Smith, do you have any examples?

  Professor Smith: I do not have any specific examples. You have heard from Lyle about the work that has been done elsewhere. I would take a slightly different tack on what Chris has said. I think that Britain has the opportunity to be the first country to legislate positively and to have a proper regulatory framework for this type of work. Other countries in Europe are not doing so and, in the United States, it is in the private sector. I think that what happens in this country is important for the scientific community internationally because good scientific colleagues in other countries do not necessarily have this option.

  Q32  Dr Spink: I am grateful to you for saying that because we are proud that our country is, in a way, leading the world with the first stem cell bank and we think with an ethically-based but permissive regulatory regime. What we are trying to do is to prevent that being changed by inappropriate action driven by ill-informed public opinion and we have to get that balance right. Professor Smith, why, if you believe that, are you not following this line of research yourself?

  Professor Smith: From the point of view of scientists, there are many important and interesting questions to pursue in the stem cell arena and my particular expertise does not lie in this area. I was talking with Professor Shaw beforehand and he is using, in his work, some cell lines that we developed through a different route, so one is working in the same broad area context in which each individual has to pursue their own particular angle. This is only one rather small aspects of the whole bigger picture of stem cell research. There is only the opportunity to fund the best people in each area; you do not want everybody taking the same approach.

  Q33  Dr Harris: I would like to first of all put on the record that I have discussed this matter with Dr Armstrong and Professor Shaw before we announced this inquiry when we went into this in some detail and it is only fair that I should point that out. The Government's White Paper, for want of a better word, says that revised legislation will clarify the extent to which the law of regulation applies to embryos combining human and animal material. The Government will propose that the creation of hybrid or chimera embryos in vitro should not be allowed. Is it your opinion, and do you think that it is the opinion of those scientists interested in this, that that would cover the creation of the pseudo-hybrids that you are seeking to do?

  Dr Armstrong: Our interpretation of that subparagraph was that that would be the case.

  Q34  Dr Harris: Is it also your view that a ban on the creation of hybrid and chimera embryos, that is embryos including human and animal material, might cover work that is currently going on? For example, I have been told to suggest that the creation of the Down Mouse might be covered by that. Is it your view that the creation of the Down Mouse, which is a model for Downs Syndrome which has a human chromosome inserted in mouse embryonic stem cell and then a chimera created and grown to term and bred, would be covered by such a rule all other things being equal?

  Dr Armstrong: If such things are truly defined as hybrid organisms, then, yes, it is possible that it would. Those models are very valuable where we try to find the mouse model of the human disease which bear human (inaudible), but our understanding of the current White Paper was that it was largely focused on producing hybrid embryos by nuclear transfer, but these would not be produced in that way necessarily.

  Q35  Dr Harris: The White Paper talks about creating hybrids and chimeras mixing human and animal material and creating embryos. I would be interested to know whether the other witnesses feel that that definition without further clarification might cover the introduction of a human chromosome into mouse embryonic stem cells and the creation then of a chimeric embryo from that which is then grown to term.

  Professor Shaw: It is a hybrid if you are putting chromosome material from two different species together in the same cell, so by definition it is. It is not the complete complement of human chromosomes, so you can at least debate that issue, but these are essentially hybrid cells.

  Professor Smith: I think that the wording is very fuzzy and unfortunate and, apart from that particular example, actually there is a much more serious issue about the use of the term "chimeras" because, any time that you transplant cells into an animal model, say Parkinson's Disease, then you are actually creating a chimera, and this wording implies that any of those types of experiments which are routinely done, could be . . .

  Q36  Dr Harris: The wording relates to embryos actually. So, it could be said that, when you are introducing cells into a mouse, that is not creating an embryo and therefore would not be covered by this. One then might argue, why is an embryo more worrying than a full-grown animal with human and animal tissue merged? It is curious to say that something that is never going to develop is a worry and something that is running around with the same combination is. Do you say that is unfair?

  Professor Smith: That is a reasonable argument but it is also the case that there are situations where you introduce cells in utera into developing mouse or rat embryos and this is quite important to test the development potency.

  Chairman: You are basically saying that this wording is not helpful and that is needs to certainly be challenged.

  Q37  Dr Harris: We will come back to chimeras when we come back to the 14 day point later. The final question from me is regarding this issue about the risk to research if this ban, even with the possibility of later regulations, comes into fruition. Is it possible to estimate, to give a number, as to how far we are currently ahead of other countries because of what Dr Spink described as a permissive yet equitable regularly framework? How quickly would other countries catch up with us if there was a pause created on this sort of work?

  Dr Armstrong: Certainly if the United States were to release or promote federal funds for embryonic stem cell research, it would be only a matter of a few years before they were able to supersede the efforts that Britain was making in this area. Currently, we have more opportunities than they do to go ahead with this type of research. It is much easier to do embryonic stem call related projects than it is in the US or, for example, in Germany where it is very difficult to even buy in embryonic stem cell lines to work on in the labs of collaborators we have met. We do risk throwing away our early lead in this type of research if we choose to ban certain types of procedures because we think that perhaps certain people may find them distasteful.

  Q38  Chairman: I am trying to move on, so would you be fairly brief.

  Professor Shaw: My point is that I feel very uncomfortable talking about competition because, from my point of view, the race is against the disease. These cells lines would be made available internationally for people to discover cures and that is the purpose.

  Q39  Adam Afriyie: Do you think there is a possibility that if a decision is not made or if that line or research is banned or outlawed, people working in this area would move and simply relocate abroad where they are able to work?

  Professor Shaw: Certainly the work will relocate abroad. Whether people will or not is another matter. I personally will not but others may.

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