Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 152-159)



  Q152 Chairman: Could I welcome the first panel of witnesses to this evidence session on the Government's proposals on the regulation of hybrid and chimera embryos. We are being televised this afternoon so there are the usual restrictions, and because we are trying to get three panels into our witness session this afternoon, looking at the opponents and proponents of this research, we are having to be very speedy. If I ask you, as witnesses, to speed up, it is not me being impolite, because I am never impolite, it is just a matter that we are pushed for time. I am going to ask each of our first panel to spend just one minute saying who you are and the organisation you represent before we start the questioning. May we start with you, Bishop?

  Rt Rev Dr Lee Rayfield: My name is Lee Rayfield. I am the Bishop of Swindon and I am representing views of the Church of England. I should say also I am a member of the Gene Therapy Advisory Committee but I am not representing their views, but you should know that I am on that Committee.

  Dr MacKellar: My name is Calum MacKellar and I am the Director of Research at the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics.

  Dr King: I am Dr David King. I am the Director of Human Genetics Alert, which is an independent watchdog group on genetics and reproductive technology issues, and I am a molecular biologist by training.

  Q153  Chairman: Thank you. I know the size of your constituency, Bishop, but can I ask, Dr MacKellar and Dr King, what is the size of your organisations, please, just for the record?

  Dr MacKellar: We have about 70 members, interdisciplinary, from medicine, philosophy, biomedical research and there are one or two theologians as well.

  Dr King: We have about the same number of members. It is a small group of concerned citizens.

  Q154  Chairman: We will start with you perhaps, Bishop. Are you against the use of human embryos for all research purposes or specifically against the mixing of human and animal material to create embryos?

  Rt Rev Dr Lee Rayfield: I think, as a church, we have made our position pretty clear already on the use of embryos, following the Warnock Report and the various reports which have followed from there, and so, as a church, we have taken a position which is not absolutist but developmental. However, we have a very keen eye on the status of the human embryo and to be very cautious but also to think where developments may be possible without infringing that sanctity. There is a wide variety of views within the Church, as Members here will appreciate, but that is the line we have taken on embryo research in general.

  Q155  Chairman: Mixing materials from a human into a cow's egg, for instance, you would regard as unacceptable?

  Rt Rev Dr Lee Rayfield: You asked me, first of all, about human embryos and I am getting to the second point. We have given two responses, first of all, and have not done as much thinking on it, as time has not allowed yet. The first one would be, when we were asked a very blunt question, in response to whether it was permissible, we would be very hesitant and cautious and say, "Let's not go there yet." However, more recently there has been a comment just to say that we need to be cautious, and there is an openness to considering this line, if it might decrease the use of human embryos. At the moment, I think we would take the position that we need a bit more reflection and some caution and we should not rush in to embrace what is potentially an awkward area.

  Q156  Chairman: Dr MacKellar, the same question: are you against all human embryos for research or just this mixing of animal and human tissues?

  Dr MacKellar: It would depend on what kind of research was being proposed. As a council, we would also want the UK to ratify the European Convention on Human Rights in biomedicine. Article 18 of that European Convention says that the creation of human embryos just for research should be prohibited. As a council, we endorse that; the Human Genetics Commission also endorses it; 20 other countries in Europe have ratified it and 14 other countries have signed their intention to ratify. We are concerned that the UK will be left out on a limb, that we will be isolated ethically on that.

  Q157  Chairman: We will return to that later; so it depends on what the research is?

  Dr MacKellar: Exactly.

  Dr King: Likewise. We are not a religious group at all and we are not opposed to embryo research or opposed to embryonic stem cell research. We have taken a very strong line in opposing cloning, for a number of reasons.

  Q158  Chairman: That is not being suggested though, is it? In terms of putting human material into animal eggs, where do you stand on that; you are against it?

  Dr King: Yes. I would support the position that is taken by the Government. I would go a little further than them in saying that if we are going to overturn a ban on the creation of such things then we need a full parliamentary debate. The kind of debate you get over regulations would not be sufficient for us.

  Q159  Chairman: How do you respond to the claim that there are far too few human eggs to be able to develop the technologies which researchers are wanting to do so they can make full use of the small supply of human eggs in the future; therefore you are using these chimeras, if we can use that as a short term, or cybrids, as we were told last week, is that not justification for going ahead with hybrids?

  Dr King: I think you have put your finger on precisely the problem with this research. Basically, scientists are in a position where they are trying to do something very unnatural, that is to say, to force a somatic cell to entirely reverse its differentiation programme and go back to the zero state. That is why cloning does not work really at all efficiently and we have animals with all kinds of defects being born. They are stuck in that position, it is very inefficient, so what they seem to be doing here is saying, "We're going to overcome this by brute force of numbers; we're going to get thousands and thousands of eggs and then we can overcome it with brute force of numbers." What they have failed to realise is that, in doing that, they have added another layer of unnaturalness and another layer of, I would say, probably biological impossibility of success, because what they are asking for is the reprogramming of nuclei by cytoplasmic factors which are mismatched for species, so it is going to make it even more difficult.

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