UK must be allowed to unwrap stem cell gift

November 10, 2000

Give scientists in Britain the freedom to conduct research using cloned embryo cells, says Richard Gardner

MPs and Lords will soon be asked to vote on a proposal to allow research on stem cells derived from human embryos, including those produced by cloning technology, to investigate the possibility of new treatments for injuries and degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, diabetes, hepatitis and osteoporosis.

Earlier this week, the Royal Society, the Medical Research Council and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics briefed parliamentarians about recent developments in this field and the potential benefits for patients if the terms of the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act are extended so that studies on stem cell treatments can progress in this country.

Stem cells can replicate themselves and also generate more specialised cell types as they multiply. They occur at all stages of human development, from embryo to adult, but their versatility and abundance gradually decrease with age.

Most of the body's specialised cells cannot be replaced by natural processes if they are seriously damaged or diseased. It may be possible, however, to treat patients by transplanting specialised cells that are grown from stem cells in the laboratory.

If the transplanted cells are grown from stem cells that are not genetically compatible with a patient, the immune system will reject them. But therapeutic cloning could be used to overcome the problem of rejection.

This would entail the transplantation of the nuclei from a patient's cells into egg cells from which the nuclei had been removed. The aim would be to generate early embryos from which stem cells could be derived. Specialised cells might then be produced that would be in essence identical to the patient's cells.

At present, the law allows licences to be granted by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority only for research that is judged to be both necessary and desirable for the specific purposes of developing infertility treatments, contraception and methods for detecting the presence of gene or chromosome abnormalities in embryos before implantation, or for understanding the causes of congenital diseases and miscarriages.

If the terms of the 1990 act are extended through affirmative regulations, the HFEA will also be allowed to grant licences for the use of embryos for research into cell-based therapies for diseases and serious injuries.

As therapeutic cloning also involves the creation of an embryo, it is governed by the 1990 act, and so would require a licence from the HFEA. As the HFEA has indicated that it would not grant a licence for attempts to implant a cloned embryo into the womb so that it could develop into a foetus, human reproductive cloning could not be carried out.

If Parliament rejects the proposed legislative changes, scientists will be unable to obtain stem cells directly from embryos in the United Kingdom.

They will, however, still be able to import embryonic stem cells from commercial research organisations in the United States or elsewhere.

This may prove more expensive and time-consuming, and it could hinder the progress of scientists studies. Some British researchers might consequently decide to move overseas to carry out their research, thus weakening the UK's pioneering lead in this field.

Although scientific research is an international enterprise, much of the work on stem cells outside the UK has been carried out in the private sector and has not been published. Most of the high-quality research by UK scientists has been published so that the acquired knowledge can be shared.

The Royal Society believes that it is important for research in this field to be carried out in the public domain so that it can be subjected to proper scrutiny.

It is up to parliamentarians to ensure that appropriate legislation and adequate levels of public funding allow this work to be carried out successfully in the UK.

Richard Gardner is chairman of the Royal Society working group on therapeutic cloning.

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