Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

I am worried that we are creating a euphemism here to disguise the reality. I do not think that that will assuage public anxieties, a point we shall come on to later when we debate whether we should allow at all the creation of interspecies embryos. That is the expression that will be replaced if we use the phrase “human admixed embryo”. As the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, among others, has said and no doubt will say again, when is it an animal admixed embryo and when is it a human admixed embryo? Those questions will remain, whatever decision is taken by noble Lords today. I hope that when we come to the more fundamental debate on whether we should allow this at all, we shall pause very carefully for thought.

The Archbishop of Canterbury: My Lords, I begin by apologising to the House for the fact that I am obliged to leave the Chamber before five o’clock this afternoon. I want just to echo some of the anxieties that have been raised in the past few minutes. I share entirely the unease of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, about the phrase, “the human end of the spectrum”, which seems to introduce a very unhelpful element of uncertainty. Given that some of the major moral reservations around this Bill, which have been expressed broadly both in the country and in your Lordships’

15 Jan 2008 : Column 1186

House, pivot upon the concern that this legislation is gradually but inexorably moving towards a more instrumental view of how we may treat human organisms, any lack of clarity in this area seems fatally compromising and ambiguous. I hope that we can have some further clarity in this afternoon’s discussion.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, I, too, find the phrase “human admixed embryo” confusing. Like other noble Lords, I have had a large number of letters expressing concern about the Bill and I do not think that replacing the phrase “inter-species embryo” with “human admixed embryo” clarifies the situation. I had not followed the detail of our debates closely enough to realise that the phrase “human admixed embryo” does not mean what I first took it to mean. The Bill has “Human” and “Embryology” in its title, so when I first read the phrase I assumed that it referred to a human egg that had been admixed with some animal cell input. As I read the Bill, it appears from Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 that the definition of the phrase “human admixed embryo”, for the purposes of this Bill, will be a mixed animal and human cytoplasmic one or no more than a pure hybrid 50:50 animal-human one, starting from an animal egg. That suggests to me that the resulting embryo cannot be more than half-human, although I admit that I may not fully understand the science.

For members of the public who are concerned about mixing human and animal or other species in the creation of an embryo, the phrase “human admixed embryo” is unclear on what happens. It could mean, to the uninitiated, that a human embryo has had another species’ material added to it. Did the Government intend that? It may be that the Minister can clarify the reasons for his amendments—and I listened most closely to what he said—but I wonder whether we have yet arrived at the right definition for this problem.

Lord Neill of Bladen: My Lords, I add my voice to the reservations and surprise that have been expressed today. I represent a category, which may not be limited to one Member of your Lordships’ House, that finds this Bill quite difficult to understand anyway. On embryology I come from a sort of zero background, if that is possible.

I was astonished when I picked up the Marshalled List today. I found this change on its first page and then traced it through the rest of the amendments. It has a devastating effect throughout the Bill. My noble and gallant friend Lord Craig of Radley raised a serious question on whether the term is apt and easily understood by members of the public, and whether it truly describes what we are about in the best possible way.

I also share the doubts of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, about this image of the spectrum; like the rainbow, that presumably must have a mid-point. It is impossible to compare what is mainly at the human end with what is mainly at the animal end. As I understand it—although my knowledge, as I have confessed, is limited—we are covering organisms, if that is the right word, that are 50:50 animal and human. The stress in this new definition is, however, all on the human end.



15 Jan 2008 : Column 1187

Will the Minister consider not pressing ahead with these amendments, and treating today as if he has given notice that this is how he would like to see the final Bill? We could debate the amendments on that basis and come back on Third Reading to vote on them; that may provide time for a fuller discussion. I received no advance notice of the reasoning behind this or a letter from the Minister, although one or two colleagues in the House did. More time should be taken, and we ought not to be rushed into this today.

Lord Winston: My Lords, may I interject briefly on the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit? We have already crossed swords once in this debate and no doubt we shall do so again. However, the idea of the spectrum is not quite as simple even as it sounds. I say that because in the average mammalian embryo—the human embryo, for example—only a very small proportion of its cells end up being the foetus.

It is thought that in the human embryo, around 10 per cent of the cells will become the inner cell mass that eventually leads to the person, if it is allowed to develop. The rest is, essentially, the part of the foetus that we throw away at birth, or incinerate or dispose of in some way—the placenta or membranes. Whether you use the word “admixture”, “hybrid” or whatever, there is a problem here with the definition of spectrum. The Government have tried very hard to find a sensible solution to this and I certainly support this amendment.

Secondly, I have a further concern in that, as I understand it, letters have been sent to Members of the House which seem scurrilously misleading. I have not received one myself so I may be wrong but this was reported to me. There seems to be a notion that such hybrids, such mixtured embryos, might be allowed to develop into an animal human being. That is a complete misconception, if I may use a pun for which I apologise. I did not mean to use it. That is untrue. It is very doubtful whether such organisms would be viable for more than a few days under any circumstances. In any case they would probably not be viable for longer than the length of time that the Act covers. As this is done for experimental purposes, we are really looking only at the first 14 days. In practice, we are looking only at the first six or seven days because that is as long as you can practically do the research and derive stem cells.

My third point is about stem cells. I mentioned this point in Committee and I believe that it is very important. The best way of defining the potentiality of a stem cell to develop into different tissues is to inject it into the embryo of an immune deficient animal, usually an immune deficient mouse, which cannot reject those cells as a result of its immune system. Pretty well all the experiments that have been done which have defined stem cells and their potentiality have eventually ended up with that experiment because that is the defining moment of finding whether you have a cell which is truly capable of development. If the mouse is allowed to develop, the following happens. When the mouse baby is humanely killed, one can see in which tissues the cells that have been transferred into the embryo still exist. Normally you would expect to see them in the brain, liver, heart and so on. That does not alter

15 Jan 2008 : Column 1188

the quality of the mouse but you have demonstrated that the stem cells you have produced are genuinely pluripotent; that is, capable of developing into a wide range of tissues.

To my mind it is essential that we protect this research. So far as I am aware, there is no other test of pluripotentiality. Part of this research would not even be covered by this Bill. For example, if I derived a stem cell from the bone marrow of a human adult, I could legitimately inject such a cell into the mouse to define whether it was pluripotent. The paradox is that if it were an embryonic cell I could not do that because of this Bill. That seems foolish, if I may say so, and counterproductive to the human value of such research. Nobody in the scientific field in biology doubts that adult or embryonic stem cells—I know that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and I disagree about this—are of huge value to human medicine, but we need to prove that they are capable of developing into different tissues without causing a cancer, and that requires that animal experiment.

Lord Patel: My Lords, I support this definition. There was much discussion and debate in Committee, and prior to that when we had the stem cell debate, about what we are trying to do here. It is important to understand what we are trying to do and why the human admixed embryo definition might be more appropriate. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, said, the spectrum covers truly cytoplasmic interspecies embryos, where the component that comes from the animal egg is the cytoplasm in the egg of that animal from which the nucleus, and therefore the majority of the animal DNA, is removed.

It is important to understand why we are trying to do this and what the law currently allows. The law currently allows one to take a somatic cell, a skin cell, from a person suffering from a disease—for example, motor neurone disease—and insert the nucleus from that cell into a human egg from which the nucleus is removed and to produce an embryo from which to harvest stem cells that will carry the genes of that disease to be able to understand the progression of the disease and develop drugs to treat it. That is the main reason for doing this research. It is to help humanity—it is not to endanger humanity in any way.

3.30 pm

Why do we have to use animal eggs? We need to use animal eggs because human eggs are not available. If you take a dead cow’s egg and remove the nucleus, and take a somatic cell nucleus from the skin of a person who is suffering from a debilitating, progressive and lethal disease, to produce a stem cell line, that stem cell line carries the gene of that disease. That will enable you to do the research necessary to cure that disease. Depending at what stage you harvest those stem cells, that stem cell line comprises 99.5 per cent human cells. It carries only 0.5 per cent or less of animal material and none of it is animal DNA. There is no intention to implant that in any human being or in any animal. It will be used for basic research, to find cures for diseases. Therefore, the term “human admixed embryo” is correct, because the embryo is at the human end—it is 99.9 per cent human.



15 Jan 2008 : Column 1189

Currently, there is no intention to use pure hybrids, which will end up as 50 per cent human and 50 per cent animal. We do not know, in research terms, when they are using these cells to do exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Winston, has described in order to understand the subsequent development of cell lines, whether that will come later. But we recognise that any such development would require a Home Office licence. I hope that we understand the basis of these definitions and what we are trying to do. There was a discussion about the interspecies definition not being appropriate. Scientists have worked hard to explain what they are trying to do, and why it is important.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I am sure that many people will feel that I should not intervene, but I am one of many who must be finding it terribly difficult to understand this debate. What we are talking about now—with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Patel—is not what those who wish to carry out these experiments are going to do in the future, but what this phrase “human admixed embryo” means. I still do not understand what it means. Does it, for instance, cover an embryo that is 51 per cent human and 49 per cent animal? Or is it only an apt description of an embryo that is 80 per cent human and 20 per cent animal? I simply do not understand.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, I think that what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, and by my noble friend Lord Patel leaves me with little to add, except these points. I think that the Minister raised this, and the Government proposed the term “admixed embryo”, in a brave attempt to produce a more acceptable term than “interspecies embryo”, which frightened many of the public into believing that if this Bill became an Act, it could ultimately result in the development and formation of monsters, or animal-human hybrids. That was never the intention, because these “admixed embryos” are viable, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, made clear, only for three or four days at most and could never under any circumstances develop into actual animals or human beings. The Bill makes it clear that such structures could never be implanted into the egg of a female human being or indeed into an animal.

Having said that, let me stress the crucial point made by the noble Lord, Lord Patel, about the importance of stem cell research. Many people are saying that stem cell research has not yet resulted in any improvement in human disease. There is in fact some evidence to suggest that stem cells have been able to ameliorate certain cardiac conditions and considerable evidence is now emerging—I speak as a patron of the Spinal Injuries Association—that crucial work is going on that shows a very real prospect that stem cells may help to move towards repairing spinal cord damage in the paraplegic person. As yet, that is not a reality, but it is coming much closer.

One other point is very important. Stem cells derived from adult tissue such as bone marrow, stem cells derived from the umbilical cord and stem cells derived from other tissues may in fact be invaluable for the treatment of disease. The problem is that the cells, when injected into another individual, produce an

15 Jan 2008 : Column 1190

immune response. If that treatment is to work, they require the suppression of the immune response of the individual in just the same way as suppression of the immune response is required in renal transplantation, heart transplantation and others. The great virtue of what has been called the interspecies embryo, to which my noble friend Lord Patel referred, or as the Government now wish to call it, the admixed embryo, is that if you take a skin cell from a human being suffering from one of these devastating diseases and, if it were available, take a donor female ovum—which is very rare and difficult to obtain—and take out the nucleus of the donor ovum and transplant into it the nucleus from the skin cell of the individual with the disease, you can then create from that structure a series of stem cells that are immunologically compatible with the host from whom that skin cell has been removed. That is a major development of great importance.

The reason for using the admixed embryo is to take the animal egg, remove the nucleus, put in the skin cell from the human subject—the same technique that was used by Ian Wilmut in creating Dolly the sheep—and to create from that a generation of stem cells that are 99.95 per cent human. The animal component is simply the capsule in which that nucleus has been implanted. That is a very minor component, so it is properly called a human admixed embryo. That technique has enormous prospect for the amelioration of human health and, if the Bill goes ahead—as I very much hope that it will—it will be of great importance to the future of many people with inherited diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and other conditions that could be greatly helped by the derivation of those cells.

Ian Wilmut said that he was not going to go on with this technique of cloning because of another technique that is being developed; but that other technique, which is being carried out in the United States, requires the use of an oncogene, which is a cancer-producing gene. I know that that is now being modified, but the problem is that stem cells derived in that way, which Ian Wilmut says is worthy of further exploration, are liable to produce malignant growths. That is one of the problems. The so-called interspecies embryo, or, as the Government now prefer to call it, the admixed embryo, is capable of producing generations of stem cells that are compatible with the individual and which do not produce an immune response, which is of enormous value in the treatment of disease.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, can we get back to the nuts and bolts of the amendments? We are talking about changing the name of the embryo; we are not talking about the ethics of the use of the embryo. In so far as the definition is concerned, Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 to Clause 4 adequately suit the purpose.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, we are getting into a misapprehension here. I did not believe that we were debating the good or ill, or success or failure, of matters to do with stem cell research. I thought that we were debating a particular term that we did not understand. It is as simple as that. Surely it is not unreasonable to wish to see clearly what we

15 Jan 2008 : Column 1191

mean when we set down wording in a Bill. Everything else can wait for other debates. We have wasted a good deal of time on matters that do not actually refer to these amendments. I wish that we could get back to them.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, regarding the terms of these amendments, I am a complete lay person in following the scientific arguments. However, I listened with some care to the full Committee stage debate on the definitions of embryos and to the concerns raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, about the phrase “interspecies embryo”, about which, I must say, I was not personally concerned. I have also received the letters that suggested a more scurrilous—to repeat the word used earlier—application of this term. I understand why many of the issues have been raised.

I found the explanations given by the noble Lords, Lord Patel and Lord Walton, and by my noble friend Lord Winston helpful in explaining the nature of the admixed embryo. However, it is not, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, a government proposal, although it is a government proposal for the purposes of the Marshalled List. I understand that it is a result of lengthy discussion with the scientific community, as suggested by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, in agreeing with the change of term. Therefore, while I did not feel the apprehension that existed at the Committee stage about the phrase “interspecies embryo”, I feel extremely reassured by what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, has said about his reaction to this new expression and would be happy to accept it.

Baroness Warnock: My Lords, if it were possible to bring the definition of human admixed embryo, to be placed in Clause 16, further up to the very beginning—to the first page—of the Bill, some of today’s expressions of bewilderment would be allayed because that is a good definition. The problem is that the Bill necessarily contains a large number of expressions, not just this one, that are unfamiliar to people who are not familiar with the science. The latter can be learnt if the Bill is read with its definitions carefully. That would put an end to a lot of the trouble but I do not know whether that is possible.

However, if the definition was moved to the beginning, the need for a definition of where exactly on the spectrum a human embryo changes to an animal embryo would be unnecessary. What is referred to as a human admixed embryo is clear and means nothing except what is to be found in the definitional clause later on. Therefore, it is just a matter of saying it earlier.

Lord Harries of Pentregarth: My Lords, will the Minister think again about a suggestion I made at an earlier stage? Widespread hesitation has been expressed in the House today about the question of definition on the one hand and there has been strong defence by our scientifically qualified noble Lords of the need for a particular type of research on the other. Indeed, we seem to have so many distinguished noble Lords in the House that I wonder whether, equivalent

15 Jan 2008 : Column 1192

to the noble and gallant and the noble and learned, we need a noble and scientific Lord. The point is that the noble and scientific Lords have defended research on cytoplasmic hybrids. It has been given extensive consideration by the HFEA, both by its ethics committee and in its legal advice—of which the latter is that this is a human embryo from the standpoint of the 1990 Act.

There are research scientists banging on the door wanting to get on with this kind of research for the type of reasons that have already been given. Research on other forms of admixed embryo is not yet in the offing, as I understand it. So it would be possible for this Bill to make it quite clear that it is approving cytoplasmic hybrids, with perhaps a regulating power to consider other forms of admixed hybrid when the occasion arises, and when research scientists want to do research in that area. If there is total deadlock on this issue, perhaps I may ask the Minister to consider that way of proceeding.

3.45 pm

Lord Patten: My Lords, I certainly do not fall into the category of noble and scientific; I fall into the category of noble and confused about the meaning of these terms. I wish to make two points: the first is on meaning and the second is on process. We have a brand-new meaning and, as I think it is very important, I would be grateful if the Minister could find time, in his wind-up, to say when exactly this phrase “human admixture” was coined. Was it coined by the Minister? When did the Minister first hear of it? That must be on record. It is an extremely important point in this debate.

Noble Lords: Why?

Lord Patten: My Lords, noble Lords ask why. The answer is that the Bill has been subjected, quite properly, to long pre-legislative scrutiny and to close examination at Second Reading and in Committee when we were debating a partially different definition. It is important to know whether this phrase was considered earlier and rejected and, if so, why. The Government are now clearly in some trouble about the meaning and I suspect that, if the phrase survives this place, it will go to another place where it will have even closer scrutiny, which it may not survive.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page