Stringent new laws on the use of human embryonic stem cells (ES cells) in experiments are being planned by the UK Government. This will delay critical research into life-threatening diseases, according to a group of leading scientists.
The proposed laws are part of the revised Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that is currently being debated in Parliament, and would mean a ban on the creation of embryos (that are then used for a supply of ES cells) from donated tissues without consent from the donor. The problem arises when scientists are prevented from using tissue from existing stores that were collected in the past from patients, prior to ES cell research even being imagined. Specific consent, therefore, was not given for the tissues to be used in ES cell work, and cannot be collected retrospectively since most of the tissue was donated anonymously. The Government also believes that the donors may not have given their consent had they known that their tissues could later be used in this type of research. The Bill also prohibits the use of tissue donated from children, even if their parents give consent on their behalf.
Those opposing the restrictions are a group of 29 distinguished researchers in the field, including three Nobel Prize laureates: Sir Martin Evans, Sir Paul Nurse and Sir John Sulston. In a letter written to the Times newspaper and signed by the scientists, they state that as a result of the legislation, potentially life-saving research into serious and incurable diseases such as Alzheimer's, motor neuron disease and diabetes will be massively delayed. They are in agreement that consent should be obtained in the future for this type of work. The tissue banks in existence, however, already contain tissues from patients with the diseases, so ES cells could be created with the same genetic defects - a valuable tool for research. According to the scientists, not being able to use them would be a major set-back. They also argue that the proposed bans will hinder the UK from maintaining its position as a world leader in stem cell science. The letter was organised by Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat MP, who says: 'When the science world unites behind an important and reasonable request, that should be taken very seriously by Parliament and the ministers'.
Lord Patel of Dunkeld, the Chairman of the UK Stem Cell Network Steering Committee, is seeking to amend the Bill in the House of Lords on two accounts; the ban on use of the existing tissue banks due to lack of consent, and the ban on use of tissue from children. The amendments are also backed by the Medical Research Council, the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust and the Academy of Medical Sciences. Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, a government whip, said: 'No one can give consent for an adult who lacks capacity, and for the same reason I do not believe that it is right to do so on behalf of a child who is too young to give consent', but she said that the House of Lords would consider the amendments of the two sections carefully before the Bill returns to Parliament for its third reading.