Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 302)



  Q300  Lord Mitchell: Slightly different: it is referring to relationships with other disciplines. What opportunities do you see to develop links with complementary activity concerned with the aspects of ageing and those related to other disciplines? How successful have any efforts been to build such links? What problems have been encountered?

  Professor Lees: Shall I start, perhaps, with Lord May's question? Very briefly, because I entirely support what Professor Weissberg said earlier. I think in the 10 or 15-year period we will have stem cells, but not just stem cells: there are drugs that are being developed, there are compounds being recognised now, which do seem to be able to switch back on the ability of neurones to re-grow, to encourage DENTRITE growth and to encourage them to start signalling to each other. It seems very likely that we will start work on these sorts of things over the next few years, but knowing how long it will take to get the right compound and to get these into clinical research practice, will be 10 or 15 years. I think there is a real possibility that we can encourage repair mechanisms in the brain.

  Professor Weissberg: If I can pick up on the same theme, I think one of the reasons why it is crucially important we continue to do embryonic stem cell research in this country is not because I think that they are going to be providing a therapeutic tool themselves, but it is by studying those cells that we are going to understand the molecular mechanisms and molecular biology of tissue differentiation. Once you start to understand that then you can start tripping the switches by pharmacological means to induce a mature heart cell to start dividing again, which it would not normally do. It should be conceivable you can make it do that, it is just we do not understand the process. So I think tissue engineering and tissue repair is going to be the way over the next 20 years or so to deal with these "degenerative" diseases.

  Professor Fentem: Picking something up right at the other extreme, if I may, Derek Wanless has focused on the importance of lifestyle factors in the development and progress of chronic disease. Older people are likely to be major beneficiaries, but we really do not how to deliver the messages effectively. We have always baulked at sustained interventions in this field—witness the physical activity taskforce and the obesity taskforce, which were dismantled in 1994 and which would have put us in place splendidly in relation to the problems that we now see out there. I think a big challenge is going to be to implement Wanless. That will take 20 years.

  Q301  Chairman: Indeed, when you see the word "taskforce" and the word "tsar" you worry it is going to be short-sighted and short-term.

  Professor Fentem: Can I come to Lord Mitchell's question? I think there is undoubtedly scope for collaboration between the BHF (my colleague), Diabetes UK, Alzheimer's and Help the Aged. It may need some facilitating but there certainly is scope for that. I think the climate for collaboration is better than it has been. Some of it happens already, facilitated by the research group themselves. I can give you an example of the study by the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer (EPIC), which is a cancer study taking place currently, centred in Cambridge, working with a cohort of people in Norfolk. As I said, EPIC is based essentially on cancer and lifestyle factors in cancer, but that brings together Diabetes UK, the MRC, the cancer charities of course, and ourselves. So I think that those are the two mechanisms currently open to us. As charities we have got to sort ourselves out but, equally, provided we do not inhibit the teams of researchers that we support—and we do not—from going to multiple charities for their funding, quite a bit is possible. I could give some other examples but I think time prevents that.

  Professor Weissberg: I presume that is what you meant by complementary activity, not complementary medicine?

  Q302  Lord Mitchell: Yes.

  Professor Weissberg: I think I would sound one slight note of caution, and that is that it is clear that we have limited resources, whether it be patients or whether it be research resources, but we certainly have a limited resource in terms of researchers in this country, and we do need to do something to address that. I was at a meeting this morning that is trying to do something about that. It is important, therefore, that we pool our resources and we have collaborations, and we talk to each other, but I would also just caution that if we over-regulate and if we over-formularise the way in which we do our research then we are going to   stifle the slightly off-the-wall, entrepreneurial approach which, often, may lead to something which nobody has thought of. I think we must not lose sight of the fact that there must be some blue skies research in some of this; it must not all be directed at what we think is going to be the obvious answer; we need to have the flexibility to think laterally and take a punt at something which may not seem that obvious at this stage. I am just slightly worried, the way things are going, it is going to get harder and harder to do that.

  Professor Lees: The other groups that I think we need to encourage collaboration with are the funding bodies in other countries. At the moment, it is possible that you can get funding for a multi-centre, multi-national study from one country's body—the NHMRC in Australia—and then struggle very hard to get the funding to do anything out-with that country. We should be able, I think, to agree that if the NIH in the United States funds a study then the MRC in the UK will fund its element of that study. There are individual examples where that is happening but there is not yet a system where one application would cover the whole world. I think it would be much better if we could, particularly for a condition like stroke where truly international research is the only way forward.

  Chairman: Those last three comments sum-up a question I want to leave with you. All of you have stressed that there are inhibitions to the right kind of research, and indeed the development of clinical treatments. You have mentioned briefly the international dimension of this and how problematic that can be, for obvious reasons. You have mentioned red tape and paperwork, you have mentioned the current rules of the RAD and, dare I say, hospital managers. What I would be very interested to know—and if you are able to produce some examples, anonymously if necessary, that you could send to the Committee that would be helpful—is where the inhibitions come in. The red tape may be there for good reason but if it is obviously not for good reason, again, examples of why and how that is the case. Equally, if it is a matter of hospital managers and budgets for that single hospital, what kind of mechanisms could help override that in appropriate cases? I will leave you with that question and it would be very useful to have some either actual examples which can be quoted on the record, or, if they are anonymised examples, that is fine, we understand. Indeed, if it is a case of "Well, this is what would happen in the following circumstances", that is also going to be helpful. That being said, can I thank you very much indeed. This session has overrun: that is due to the stimulus you have provided for us, but we look forward to further input from you. Many thanks indeed.

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