CAHGE critique of Royal Society briefing note, 7 November 2000

1. General

The Royal Society (RS) briefing document for MPs on stem cell research is a far cry from the Society's earlier submission to the Donaldson committee, in February 2000, which contained a more balanced scientific analysis of the issue, as would be appropriate for the RS. This document gives biased picture of the issues and contains important omissions, as well as misleading statements. In both form and substance it is indistinguishable from a typical lobbying document produced by pressure groups.

2. Bias in favour of embryonic stem (ES) cells and against adult stem cells

Despite caveats, the RS briefing is clearly intended to cast doubt on the potential of adult stem cells, and thus boost the case for the use of ES cells. It does this in a number of ways.

In sections 2, 3 and 4 the document outlines the potential of ES cells and cloning, but does not discuss any limitations or problems connected with their use. In paragraphs 5, 6 and 7 the briefing outlines a number of potential problems with adult stem cells, but has little to say about their potential advantages compared to ES cells. It is suggested in section 7 that we may never be able to overcome the barriers to the use of adult cells; however the document assumes that the formidable barriers facing the development of therapies from ES cells will be overcome. Given this overall bias, the caveat in the third paragraph of section 7, that both types of cells may have advantages and shortcomings is meaningless.

Amongst the technical difficulties associated with ES cells is the major problem of how to prevent them forming tumours in patients, a problem acknowledged by the RS in its earlier submission. Specialised cell lines derived from ES cells will need to be 100 percent free of residual ES cells in order to guarantee safety, which is an extremely difficult technical challenge. Other technical difficulties which will take years of research to overcome, include controlling the differentiation of ES cells, through a number of stages, to produce pure populations of a particular cell type. Even then, there will need to be extensive testing of ES-derived cells to ensure that they behave in the same way as normal cells.

The RS briefing argues that adult stem cells, because they are less versatile than ES cells, are less useful. However, it might be argued that the more restricted range of possibilities open to adult cells would make them easier to control.

It is positively misleading of the RS to suggest in sections 6 and 8 that we have more experience with ES cells for clinical purposes than adult stem cells. Although ES cells from mice have been used for nearly 20 years, there are still only three reports in the scientific literature of the derivation and purification of human ES cells. In contrast, human adult stem cells are already used in the number of therapies. What is new is the discovery that they can differentiate into a larger variety of cell types than was previously thought.

In summary, the RS briefing fails to substantiate the conclusion which it has clearly reached in advance, that therapies based on ES cells will be available more quickly and easily than those based on adult stem cells.

It is also misleading of the RS to suggest that 'Advances in cloning technology that would allow the creation of ES cells...would take longer to develop' (section 8). In fact, given the large body of existing work on cloning of animals, it is widely accepted that while the creation of viable human embryos through cloning would take significant resources, it would not take a long time. The significance of this point is that the advocates of embryo cloning argue that it may not take very long to produce cells for transplantation from ES cells, and that it is therefore important to proceed immediately with the cloning side of the overall project. In fact, as we have pointed out above, it will take many years to produce cells for transplantation. During this period, nothing would be lost in having a moratorium on embryo cloning. Basic research on nuclear transplantation, which did not use human embryos, could continue during this period.

3. False reassurances on reproductive cloning

Given the overall lack of balance of the document, it is not surprising to find it straying into areas entirely outside the scientific remit of the RS, but consistent with its overall intention to support government policy on this issue. In fact, the threat of reproductive cloning is very real, and the existing legal protections, both in the UK and internationally are very weak. In the UK, we only have a policy position of the HFEA to rely on, as the document acknowledges. Elsewhere, with the exception of a number of European countries, there are no restrictions on cloning. Given the easy transferability of scientific knowledge, the development of a process for cloning human embryos would immediately facilitate the use of this process for reproductive cloning, for example in the USA. To allow British scientists to clone human embryos would be irresponsible in the extreme. The British government should immediately begin lobbying efforts for an international treaty banning reproductive cloning, and the RS should throw its own weight behind such an effort. As pointed out above, this would have little inhibitory effect on the development of therapies based on ES cells.

4. The benefit of UK patients

The Society argues that research in this area should be done in the public sector, which we agree with. However, it neglects to mention that any commercialisation of therapies will be done by the US private corporations which hold the patents on these technologies.