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Stem cell decision time for the UK

The British parliament is to vote on Tuesday 19 December on whether to allow research into stem cell technology to be extended beyond its current boundaries.

By | December 18, 2000

When British Members of Parliament (MPs) troop through the lobbies following their debate on stem cell research tomorrow, it will be the first vote on a purely scientific issue during the current Labour administration and one of only a handful of 'free' votes — meaning that MPs can vote according to their own consciences, rather than as the party whips direct them.

Whenever the issue of stem cell technology has been addressed by legislature around the world, it has created intense debate. In the US, profound opposition to using foetuses for research came from the religious lobby, forcing a compromise decision, meaning that no public funding is available for this research.

In Italy, the Catholic Church has been outspoken in its abhorence of stem cell technology, except where cells can be gained from adults. The Church lost an important referendum recently on abortion and was keen to make a show of strength on an issue it perceives to be related.

Proponents of the research argue that if abortion is legal, then so should their work be, in order to aid humankind's health. Conditions as diverse as heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson's Disease and strokes could be helped through stem cell technology, according to researchers.

Other scientists note that, as this kind of research is very rare in other countries, the UK could begin to attract top level scientists from abroad, lured by the opportunity to conduct cutting edge research. "Scientists want to ask the big questions," says Dr Ian Gibson, a former professor of science at East Anglia University and now a Labour MP "I'd love to be 20 again and have a chance to do this," says Dr Gibson. "It would be fantastic."

Dr Gibson is firmly in the pro-research camp, hoping that the findings of the Donaldson Report (that stem cell technology research should indeed be extended) are approved by parliament tomorrow. But he is not at all sure that the arguments put by scientists will win the day. Whereas in the US, concerns are focused on the sanctity of life, British fears centre around the prospect of cloning human beings. Scientists stress that this is not the aim, that it is only a matter of 'therapeutic', rather than 'reproductive' cloning and that reproductive cloning is (in any case) illegal and will remain illegal.

Others, such as some Italian scientists, argue that we should concentrate our efforts on adult stem cells. But the proponents of the bill argue that, since embryonic stem cells can transform into more different kinds of cell, they are consequently more interesting to study.

Many of the arguments used against the research are lacking in scientific logic. "Because of the GM debate and the issues of organs being taken from patients without their consent, there has grown up an atmosphere of distrust," says Ian Gibson. "A lot of MPs don't know which way to go. They're being lobbied by their constituents," he adds.

Lobbying hard on the other side are representatives of patients' groups. As in the US, this vocal series of pressure groups has some weight behind it. "Human embryonic stem cell research, conducted within a clear ethical and regulatory framework, could play a crucial role in the development of a supply of islet cells for the cure of diabetes," says Annwen Jones, chief executive of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. His words were supported by the heads of the Parkinson's Disease Society, the director of the British Heart Foundation and the director of the Wellcome Trust, who said: "It would be a terrible shame if MPs allow misconceptions and misinformation to dash the hopes of tens of thousands of people suffering from a wide range of diseases."

There will be no change to the current legislation, which bans any research on embryos older than 14 days, nor will anyone be allowed to create embryos specifically for research, or be paid for their embryos. Some opponents of the research argue that there will nevertheless be a pressure to produce many more embryos than are currently available. This brings a sharp response from Ian Gibson: "In the years from 1991 to 1998 there were 237,600 embryos created in the UK for IVF which were thrown down the sink. We only need a small fraction of this number to develop lines of cells to grow up."

The French government is currently considering similar legislation, but there are barely any centres of stem cell research around the world, other than the private laboratories in the US. Many involved in UK research hope that, if the report is passed, it may go some way towards reversing the brain drain of talented scientists across the Atlantic in recent years. Some scientists believe that the positive effects on human health could be especially beneficial in the developing world, as this form of treatment could be far cheaper than anything currently available. And, of course, it has the potential to be a cure, rather than a palliative measure.

Given the strength of feeling on the part of the scientific community, the potential benefits to the country and to the developing world, besides the support of most of the Labour government itself, it may seem odd that the government has chosen to allow MPs a free vote on the subject. But the tradition in the UK parliament is to do this whenever any debate includes a 'moral' or religious element. Previous free-vote debates have included capital punishment, abortion and IVF treatment.

The proponents of the research will now need to muster as many arguments as they can in order to persuade their fellow MPs to put their faith in science, rather than to fear the bogeymen of popular mistrust of scientific advancement.

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