BMJ 2002;324:502 ( 2 March )
Owen Dyer, London
A parliamentary committee set up to review the rules governing stem cell research has this week concluded that researchers should continue to have access to human embryos for the foreseeable future.
The report by the House of Lords Select Committee on Stem Cell Research suggested, however, that the government conduct a further review towards the end of the decade to consider whether stem cell research was still necessary.
The committee recommended that research on adult stem cells should be strongly encouraged by the government, but did not accept the argument of pro-life groups that recent advances in this field obviated the need for embryonic stem cell research.
Richard Harries, the bishop of Oxford and chairman of the committee, said: "We were satisfied on the basis of the scientific evidence that as yet research on adult stem cells has not, as some claim, made research on embryonic stem cells unnecessary."
The report praised the work of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in regulating the use of embryos for research and concluded that the regulatory powers conferred by the Human Fertilisation (Research Purposes) Regulations 2001 were sufficient protection against the use of cloning for reproductive purposes.
The committee argued that there was no ethical difference between the use of embryos obtained from in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and those created by cell nuclear replacement (CNR), or cloning, with the proviso that 14 days should remain the limit for research on early embryos. "However," said the report, "as with embryos created by IVF for research, CNR embryos should not be created for research purposes unless there is a demonstrable and exceptional need which cannot be met by the use of surplus embryos."
The report endorsed a Department of Health proposal to establish a stem cell bank overseen by a steering committee to ensure the provenance and purity of cell lines. As a condition of licensing stem cell research, any embryonic stem cell lines generated by that research would have to be deposited in the bank. Before granting a licence to produce a new stem cell line, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority would be obliged to ensure that none of the cell lines in the bank was suitable for the research.
It had been widely predicted that
the committee would decide in favour of continuing embryonic stem cell
research. Peter Garrett, director of research at the anti-cloning group
Life, argued that the decision was a foregone conclusion, calling the committee
a "put-up job." He said that all 26 experts who had been called to testify
before the committee were avowed supporters of embryonic stem cell research.
© BMJ 2002