Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-259)|
5 FEBRUARY 2007
Q240 Dr Harris: In the answers that
you and Professor Bobrow have just given, you have made it clear
that there may be scientific debate about how well this might
work, but you do not seem to feel that there is any scientific
disagreement about whether this should be permitted, subject to
peer review, for funding, ethical peer review, and so forth. Therefore,
is it the case that you would disagree with the statement made,
there is not clear agreement within the scientific community about
the need for and benefits of this science? That is from the HFEA
press statement. Do you agree with that statement?
Mr Macauley: No. I disagree. I
think the HFEA was set up to deal with controversial issues like
this, I think the areas covered under Parliament's grant to them,
in terms of their role.
Q241 Dr Harris: That was not my question,
because you will have a chance to answer that point. Do you agree,
all three of you, with the statement, there is not clear agreement
within the scientific community about the need for and benefits
of this science?
Professor Bobrow: I do not agree
with that. I think that there is reasonable agreement. The scientific
community is like the Church; there is bound to be someone, somewhere
who takes a different perspective. There is reasonable agreement
that this is a reasonable line of inquiry. There would be considerable
difference of opinion as to whether it is the one any individual
scientist would put at the top of the list.
Professor Blakemore: In a sense,
that question would be answered by a good peer review process
which would judge the applications for funds in area of research.
Q242 Dr Harris: My final question
along these lines is, if someone was proposing a ban and based
that on the argument that, so far, I quote: "There does not
appear to be a firm consensus within the scientific community
about precisely which human-animal creation should be allowed,
any immediate imperative for doing so, or the availability and
interpretation of supporting evidence," do you think that
is a valid argument for a ban?
Mr Macauley: I think Professor
Gillon probably said it right; unless there is a good reason to
ban it then it should be allowed. I think that is an illogical
Professor Bobrow: The place to
make those priority judgments is a scientific peer review, not
Professor Blakemore: If that had
been applied, say, 10 or 15 years ago, i.e. any kind of ban on
a combination of any human material with animal material, then
we would not have the transgenic models, which involve the combination
of human-animal material, which have produced disease models of
Dr Harris: That was the Public Health
Minister, Caroline Flint, in her letter to the Observer,
defending the ban.
Q243 Chairman: We have always got
to watch Dr Harris. You cannot retract.
Professor Blakemore: No; but one
can see the potential can of wormscan of worms is an unfortunate
analogy to makethe potential pitfalls in legislation which
starts with a comprehensive ban and then allows certain exceptions
under licence, because there are so many potential exceptions.
I very much hope that what will come out of this discussion is
permissive legislation, in which areas of research that are not
considered to be acceptable necessarily might not be allowed,
but the generality would be.
Q244 Chairman: You qualified that
extremely well, if I might say so.
Mr Macauley: In fact, there are
a lot of issues; there is a Down syndrome mouse and there are
mice which have been modified to look at other conditions as well.
Whilst they are not covered by the HFEA, the Animals (Scientific
Procedures) Act covers them; so if we were to ban, whether it
is chimeras, hybrids, cybridsthere is a new definition
for Martin Smyth emergedwe can preclude a lot of good work.
We need to be very careful in terms of (a) the definition and
(b) that we do not throw out the baby with the bath water, to
use another inappropriate analogy.
Q245 Dr Turner: I would like you
all to comment, if you will, on how much benefit we have seen
from stem cell research so far, and how soon do you think we will
see some clinically applicable stem cell therapy?
Professor Blakemore: You are beginning
to sound like a journalist from the Daily Mail rather than
a member of a select committee, Dr Turner.
Q246 Dr Turner: Oh no; please do
not say that.
Professor Blakemore: The answer
to the second question, how soon will we see clinical benefits,
is very clear; we have them already. Bone marrow transplantation
and the use of umbilical cord stem cells to treat genetic disorders
and childhood cancers is very well established and very successful
therapy. There are already strong hints, and David Macauley will
be able to tell you more about this perhaps than I can, from early
clinical trials about potential benefit in other areas, for instance,
in treatment of heart disease. I think we are going to see a fairly
rapid increase in the use of haemopoetic stem cells, adult blood
stem cells, as potential treatments for a variety of conditions.
It is going to take much longer before we can hope to see embryonic
stem cells used, but I think there is enough optimism in that
area to think that it will come.
Q247 Dr Turner: I should have been
more specific perhaps in the wording. I should have said embryonic
stem cells, because that is what I meant really. Can you give
a timescale on it, even approximately?
Professor Blakemore: I would not
expect to see really significant developments in less than 10
years, but there have been many, many, many other important beneficial
advances in medical science which now are routine which have taken
a lot longer than that.
Mr Macauley: I guess it will go
back to the Pattison Report, where Sir John said deliberately
we do not know quite where the benefits will emerge, whether it
is cord, embryonic or adult. On the specific question about embryonic
cells, perhaps the first use of embryonic cells which would benefit
patients would be their use in trying to establish work on drug
toxicity so we can generate safer drugs. Broadly, you have a respond
and non-respond with toxic, in terms of drugs. To try to better
develop drugs, and embryonically-derived patacytes are leading
the charge there, and a number of companies are developing those,
and they will be used by the pharmaceutical industry to map against
different populations so that therapy can be, again, better aligned
to different ethnic groups, and so on. That is the first thing.
To answer your question on time-line, we are probably somewhere
in the five to 10 years away. The issue with embryonic stem cells,
as everybody knows, is the propensity, in a laboratory, there
is a wonderful discovery, it is called a stem cell line, i.e.
where they continue to develop and they retain their potency after
a number of passages; in the body, if that happens, it is called
a tumour. The trick is, how do we take the cells and obviously
get what we want them to do and to do no more. A lot of the underpinning
work which is done by MRC and Wellcome actually leads to that
fundamental understanding, and therefore if we ban this legislation
we are handcuffing, you are putting one hand behind your back.
There is an issue which has not emerged, I appreciate we are looking
at the science here, but there is the whole competitiveness of
the UK position here, and it is very much the quality of the science,
as we all know about, combined with one important element, which
is know-how. That is what has put the UK at the top table in this
sector. I just feel this ban, apart from sending out the wrong
messages internationally, I have had `phone calls from Canada,
Australia, on this, horrified as to why we would be going backwards,
why genuinely we would be moving backwards in this respect. The
shock is that the UK was deemed, the mother of parliaments was
mentioned, we had the mother of regulation in this area and it
was copied all around the world, and it was seen as a leading
example of an ethical, scientific-led way of developing what is
often referred to as a sort of third industrial age, the huge
potential which stem cells offer.
Q248 Chairman: I am going to stop
you there because I think we have got the message very, very clearly
and I think it is something which we have had a lot of evidence
on, about the importance of this research internationally and
getting a decision earlier than possibly with the Government's
timetable. Professor Bobrow; in response to the time?
Professor Bobrow: In a sentence,
the scientific question which is being addressed is how does a
single cell grow up to be a Member of Parliament; and that is
not a small question. To expect people to sort that out in five
years and ask questions, I do not address this to you but to the
world at large, to keep hammering on time-lines invites scientists
to overstate their case, in a way which is actually detrimental
to the public dialogue at large. I do not know whether it will
be five or 10 years but I think there is massive potential and
it would be daft not to try to follow it.
Q249 Dr Turner: The opponents of,
for instance, the cybrid proposals the HFE are stalled on, suggest
that if that work was allowed it would actually hinder the general
development in stem cell research; that is not my view but I would
like your comments on it. I would like your comments also on justifying
the funding of proposals, such as the cybrid work, as against
other, more conventional methods of producing embryonic stem cells?
Professor Blakemore: If the aim
is to generate human embryonic stem cells and then study them,
for potentialityfor the capacity to differentiate into
different tissues, the possibility of using them for therapy,
and so onit is very difficult to see how this research
could impede that, because the efficiency of generating embryonic
stem cells by the other methods, in other words without producing
animal-human combinations, is so very low. If the animal-human
combination experiments allow us to improve the methodology to
the point at which we can go back to producing stem cells from
human embryos, it will surely be beneficial and not a hindrance.
I find it difficult to see how anyone can be saying that the correct
way forward is just to push on with the use of human oocytes,
given the virtually zero success rate in using that technique,
at least for somatic nuclear transfer, so far.
Q250 Dr Turner: Do you feel that
the opponents, who have been putting this view about, and the
public are actually aware of that very straightforward justification
which you have just given and really understand it?
Professor Blakemore: I suspect
that some of the opponents are aware of the arguments, but nevertheless
have a particular position, perhaps based on religious views,
or whatever, which leads them to reject those arguments. In the
case of the public, I think there is a lot of misunderstanding
and ignorance in this area against a background of general surprise
and repugnance at the idea of combining human-animal materials.
We have to work very hard, I think, to overcome that ignorance.
Q251 Chris Mole: Mr Macauley touched
on UK competitiveness just now. Can I ask the two Professors if
you share the concerns at the risk to our leaving stem cell research,
and is this a concern that we should be taking into account in
Professor Blakemore: I have just
come back from a meeting of the International Stem Cell Forum
in Singapore, which was coupled with a two-day symposium with
contributors from around the world. The pace of progress in this
field, which was revealed in that meeting, is really quite extraordinary.
We still have, I think, an advantageous position in this through
a relatively liberal approach but with a very firm regulatory
environment and great attention paid to the arrangements for banking
of cells, for characterisation of cells, for sharing of information,
and so on. This does put us in a strong position but with a lead
which will very, very easily be lost, given the rate of progress.
Professor Bobrow: In addition
to that, which I entirely endorse, the long-term effect of creating
an unpleasant public atmosphere needlessly around issues of this
sort is that it discourages very able, young researchers from
entering the field, and it can take a very long time to reverse
that sort of trend, if it becomes established.
Q252 Mr Newmark: Do you mean in this
country, or will people take their software and move to the States,
or elsewhere, and take their knowledge there?
Professor Bobrow: We will have
both; both of those. Some people, who are in the field, will move,
and other people, who are at the start of their careers, will
say "This looks like more trouble than it's worth. I'll go
and do something else instead."
Q253 Chris Mole: Can you estimate
that competitive edge in months or years?
Mr Macauley: I would not bet against
the American Houses' federal funding for embryonic stem cell work
by Christmas. Bush can only stand up with so many vetoes. Eventually
he will capitulate and money will flow. At the moment, the analogy
is we are watching this like sand running though our fingers,
our competitive advantage, and this proposed ban does nothing
but accelerate that.
Q254 Chairman: Professor Bobrow,
do you support that time-line, that it is as short as that, the
Professor Bobrow: Our most valuable
asset is the inventiveness of the people working in the field.
If they are giving evidence all the time they are not doing experiments.
Not intended personally to anyone in the room, Sir.
Q255 Mr Newmark: Having spent a little
bit of time, as has `Dr Bob', looking at stem cell research, particularly
at Harvard, looking at the progress which is going on over there,
I am sorry if I am using the wrong words, are we sort of pissing
in the wind here, in terms of what we can do over here, with the
way we are being hampered by regulation, versus what is going
on in the States?
Mr Macauley: If we take the first
case in your question, about regulation, it is the fact that we
have sensible regulation which has allowed us to take the lead.
This is seen by everybody that I speak to, and again this is not
a scientific answer to your question, it is seen as a backward
step, and it will put us back, and this is seen as a very sort
of European response to all of this. The American money, there
is a wall of private money building up in America. My answer to
your time-line of Christmas, that is a political, inside comment
from Washington I am referring to, that they will not bet against
federal funding for embryonic stem cell work by Christmas, they
think the money will start to flow. When the floodgates open and
that money goes, because there was a comment, and it is a colleague
of mine, Dr Stephen Minger, regularly would tell me, when he was
in the States, with the Presidential ban in the States, the scientists'
and academics' heads were down, they were demoralised, which was
your point, and we have seen academics coming to this country
to benefit from our sensible, liberal environment. Once the American
money flows then who knows what will happen.
Professor Blakemore: The argument
that we might lose good researchers or lose a lead, whether it
is economical or medical, if we were to introduce new controls,
should not be an argument against such controls if they were valid.
If we felt it was the right thing to do then surely it should
be the right thing to do, even if it meant missing out on an international
race in science. In this case, it is not the right thing to do,
and the scientific community is really very united in that view.
So it would be a double failure, if you like, to introduce legislation
which is not needed and which also would give us a serious disadvantage
in a very competitive and exciting area of science.
Q256 Chris Mole: There was a specific
question I wanted to ask Professor Blakemore, in the context of
the stem cell lines which might be produced by this method. Who
would regulate them? Presumably they would be deposited in the
UK Stem Cell Bank, because there are concerns about whether those
lines might be released internationally and used differently outside
of the regulation in the UK. Could they be used as treatments
in other countries, for example?
Professor Blakemore: As I understand
it at the moment, one of the applications which are under consideration
by the HFEA is concerned with creating disease cell linesthat
is lines which carry genetic disorders created by somatic nuclear
transfer from humans that have genetic disease. These would never
be intended for use in therapy but only for research purposes.
Whether they would be deposited in the Stem Cell Bank is, I think,
is a question for discussion. Whether, once in the Bank, they
would be released for use overseas will depend on the regulations
which now are being put in place, for exchange, for the release
of such cells.
Q257 Dr Harris: Only one of the applications
for the use of such cells
Professor Blakemore: There are
different purposes, as Dr Harris has explained.
Q258 Chris Mole: Which regulations
is it suggested are being replaced?
Professor Blakemore: At the moment,
our stem cell bank is drawing up rules of guidance for how and
when cells should be released and how they can be exchanged between
banks. The rule of thumb is that they would not be released into
a scientific environment which is not comparable, as it were,
with the position in the UK.
Q259 Chris Mole: Is that something
which the Government needs to regulate, or not?
Professor Blakemore: I think we
have regulations in place which can deal adequately with virtually
any of the possible scenarios which presently we have under consideration.
The crucial issue here is whether you define the product of the
combination of animal-human material as human or animal. There
are very clear rules of thumb there that one could follow. If
the product is deemed to be human then we have the HFEA; we have
the 14-day rule; we are not allowed to reimplant: it is all very
straightforward. If it is animal, we have the Home Office and
the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act, with law, which is flexible,
which changes with experience, which is open to peer consultation,
and which I think would handle very well the creation of human-animal