Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-267)



  Q260  Dr Spink: Is it human or animal, in your view?

  Professor Blakemore: Could I refer to the Academy of Medical Sciences Working Party, which will be chaired by Professor Bobrow, which, among other things, will be examining exactly that question. A possible rule of thumb is that if what is created contains a full complement of human genetic material, a full nuclear DNA complement, then it should be classed as human, and if it contains less then it is animal.

  Q261  Chairman: Professor Bobrow, what is your view?

  Professor Bobrow: I rather resonated with the evidence of the Bishop previously, that one of the benefits of this whole affair is that trying to think more deeply about precisely what is the boundary, with cells in a dish, between human and not human, is actually something that I would not want to take a quick flyer at. There is a huge gradation of everything from a single gene in an otherwise completely mouse cell to the reciprocal, and somewhere along there we have to draw a line. The definitions of humanity that I know about all apply to things that walk upon the earth rather than things that live on the bottom of the Petrie dish, and I am not sure that there is a very straightforward answer, although I think there is a structured way of approaching it and having that discussion.

  Professor Blakemore: While I agree with my distinguished colleague from Cambridge, I would say that the gradations and complexities in science are true but we do not want to encourage similar gradations and complexities in legislation. We have to try to find a simple and clean way through regulating this area of research, or we might end up with a different bill and a different regulatory agency and a different set of rules for every one of the graded forms of human-animal cell type.

  Chairman: We take your point.

  Q262  Dr Harris: Dr Bobrow, about just less than 10 years ago, the Donaldson Committee concluded that the use of eggs from a non-human species to carry human nucleus was not a realistic or desirable solution to the possible lack of eggs for research or subsequent treatment, and recommended that funding bodies, I guess like yours, should make a declaration that they would not fund or support research using the creation of such hybrids, and indeed other hybrids. The House of Lords Stem Cell Research Committee took a different view and said if replacement of human nucleus in an animal egg provided a way of creating human embryonic stem cells for research. Some might argue it was more acceptable to use such an entity for research, etc. Which do you think was correct of those two views, in around 2000, and which do you think is correct now?

  Professor Bobrow: I think the world has moved quite a bit in those five years in at least two ways. Firstly, the extent to which this whole area of research looks promising has actually improved. There are lots of experiments which have worked, notwithstanding the difficulties we have discussed. Secondly, I am not sure that anyone at that time quite appreciated how difficult it was going to be to get a supply of human eggs on which to base these experiments. In both those respects I think that there have been such changes that I would take the view now that one needs to explore every reasonable opportunity to further the research and not impose unnecessary restrictions—

  Q263  Dr Harris: Do you think members of the Donaldson Committee should announce publicly that they have changed their view on that?

  Professor Bobrow: Why should they do that? Most of the rest of us do not; we just need to move forward.

  Q264  Dr Harris: It may well be that the Chief Medical Officer has not changed his view?

  Professor Bobrow: I do not know about that.

  Dr Harris: Is he giving evidence?

  Chairman: I am hoping that we will be able to get evidence from him, because I think it is unfair to ask the Professor what the views are of the Chief Medical Officer, six years later.

  Q265  Dr Harris: No, I was not asking about his view. I was saying do you agree that things have moved on since then; that was the question I was asking. I was not asking any other question, Chairman, and he did answer the question I asked him. On the question of chimeras, Professor Blakemore, you talked about chimera testing, to test the pluripotency of adult cells, or indeed other cells. Do you recognise that involves the mixing of human and animal material, and indeed the implantation of the blastocyst into an animal? Are you concerned that the current wording of the Government's White Paper would outlaw that, if it is not changed?

  Professor Blakemore: I am concerned, although I recognise that this is an area of deepest difficulty and that it would not be totally unreasonable to have a period of reflection, perhaps with a review after some period of time to see whether the research should either continue, if it had been allowed initially, or should be allowed to begin, if it had been banned initially. You are quite right, in order to demonstrate pluripotency in chimeras which contain, let us say, human stem cells, it will be necessary to allow the embryo carrying those human cells to differentiate to the point at which individual tissues will be discriminable, to see whether the human cells are contributing to different tissue types, and that would require implantation and a longer period of development. I think that could be handled by restrictions, for instance, on the length of time over which the implanted embryo could develop, not allowing it to come to term but to the point of organogenesis. One could think of a fairly simple algorithm which could be employed to allow that to continue, but I think that area is the most contentious and difficult and requires further reflection.

  Q266  Dr Harris: I think we found that in our evidence sessions. Are you worried that the wording of the Government's proposal in the White Paper might make the creation of models like the Down mouse unlawful? Indeed, what would that mean for people who were working with the Down mouse, if they translated the wording of the White Paper into law, because that is the mixing of human and animal material in an embryo; it is a hybrid and then a chimera, is it not?

  Professor Blakemore: You are absolutely right, and that was why I said that I hoped that any change in the law would not be based on, as it were, a general proscriptive rule with a few exceptions, but that it would be generally permissive, and then try to identify the areas of real concern, if there were going to be any prohibitions. It is absolutely true that there are already a number of extremely beneficial animal models in medical research. You have mentioned the Down mouse; I would mention the different forms of Huntington's disease mouse, in which a single human gene, an aberrant human gene, has been transferred to the genome of the mouse to create lines which mimic very, very completely the symptoms of Huntington's disease. Both of those developments, the Down mouse and the Huntington's disease mouse, those advances were made in this country and both have been internationally enormously beneficial in medical research. It would be terrible to ban their continued use in this country or to prohibit the development of similar models in the future.

  Q267  Dr Harris: Professor Bobrow, do you think they really meant that, or do you agree with what Professor Blakemore said; was it conspiracy or carelessness, in other words, was it just an error that they used the wording in the White Paper which would appear to cover that, or is there really a feeling that the public do not really like this sort of research, which was the basis they gave or implied in the White Paper for their position?

  Professor Bobrow: It is outside of my expertise what they were thinking of when they wrote that. Certainly I would agree with Colin's comments, that there are hundreds of transgenic mice around, many of them of extreme biological interest, which have all gone through a chimeric stage in their creation and which teach us lots of interesting things about the origins of human disease. Banning that would not seem sensible, and I have heard no other indication of anyone intending to do that; but as to what the drafters of the Paper said, I think that is more your territory than mine.

  Chairman: I think that is something which we will return to. Professor Colin Blakemore, Professor Martin Bobrow and Mr David Macauley, thank you very much indeed for giving us evidence.

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