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Lord Alton: The Government should back alternatives to embryonic stem cells

Lord_alton Lord Alton, an independent crossbench life peer, asks why so much time and taxpayers' money is spent on stem cell research when adult stem cells are already proven to be effective.

A considerable majority of Peers – including 60% of Conservatives – believe that human embryos ought not to be used for experimentation if effective alternatives exist. That is the startling conclusion of a new survey by the polling company ComRes, which throws a dramatic new light on the ongoing debate about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

In 2001, the Government’s then Health Minister, Lord Hunt, said quite unequivocally that:

"The 1990 Act already provides the answer to the question of what happens if and when research into adult cells overtakes research using embryos: embryonic research would have to stop because the use of embryos would no longer be necessary for that research."

It remains to be seen whether the government will take its own advice on this matter, but I believe that this ‘Hunt Test’ must be incorporated into the new Bill.

Supporters of embryonic stem cell research have long argued that the use of embryos is essential to further progress in the field. Stem cells derived from embryos have long been said to be more flexible, with more potential for use in medical treatments in humans. This perhaps explains the constant pressure from specialists to authorise more and more research into embryos, culminating in the recent proposals for animal-human hybrids.

The argument that we should focus the majority of our time, energy and money on embryonic stem cell research has always been a tenuous one, but is now truly insupportable. 

In December Professor Shinya Yamanaka in Japan, and Professor James Thomson in America converted adult skin cells into cells that resemble embryonic stem cells in their flexibility, rendering further experiments on human embryos in order to derive patient matched stem cells completely unnecessary.

It would perhaps be counter-productive to rehearse the considerable ethical arguments against the use of embryos in this space. At this stage of the debate many minds are already made up. Suffice to say that one does not have to be caricatured as an obscurantist religious believer or a Luddite to be opposed to this technology. Yet even without the complex moral arguments, there are many reasons to prefer adult cells as a source of stem cells. Adult stem cells are providing real treatments for humans in the here and now – over 70 at the last count – and can now be used as an ethical source of cells that offer just as much promise for the medical technologies of the future as embryonic stem cells, with none of the special technical difficulties and immunological complications thrown up by the use of tiny human beings in laboratory experiments.

It seems bizarre then that the Government and parts of the medical establishment should persist so doggedly in their attempts to privilege unproductive, unproven and ethically unsound research with vast sums of taxpayers’ money.

As the Chief Medical Officer recently commented on the issue of human-animal hybrids:

"there was no clear scientific argument as to why you would want to do it, and, secondly, a feeling that this would be a step too far as far as the public are concerned. I think we do have a responsibility to ensure that we take the public with us in the other important areas of research that we want to do, and do not lose their confidence by moving forward with something which is much further out, as far as acceptability is concerned, and where the scientific arguments for wanting to do it are not particularly strong or convincing, or even existent."

Since 1990 more than 2 million human embryos have been (destroyed). Surely it is time for a fresh start with adult stem cells: a technology that is ethical, practical and bringing real miracles to people’s lives.


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