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Friday, 17 November, 2000, 18:43 GMT
Minister stands up for embryo research
A stem cell researcher
Scientists want to extend their research into stem cells
The UK Government has defended controversial plans to extend human embryo research.

There are many MPs like myself who feel that as a matter of conscience we need to vote in favour of these regulations

Yvette Cooper
Ministers want to allow embryos to be used for stem cell research, which scientists believe could lead to new treatments for Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer's and insulin dependent diabetes.

But the move is opposed by anti-abortion groups, opponents of IVF treatment and religious groups.

On Friday, Health Minister Yvette Cooper promised a free vote for MPs and peers on the regulations which would extend the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Act 1990.

Strict rules

She said the government's proposals followed a report from the chief medical officer for England, which said embryonic stem cell research was vital to find treatments for a wide range of diseases.

But Ms Cooper stressed that the same strict rules which already applied to existing embryo research would apply to stem cell research.

Current areas of research
Fertility treatment
Congenital diseases
Detecting chromosome abnormality in embryos
Defending the government's plans in the House of Commons, Ms Cooper insisted: "I recognise and respect the fact that many MPs will feel as a matter of conscience that they need to vote against these regulations.

"But I would also point out that I believe the moral arguments cut both ways and there are also strong ethical arguments in favour of these regulations, given their potential to relieve the suffering of many thousands of families in this country.

"There are also many MPs like myself who feel that as a matter of conscience we need to vote in favour of these regulations."

Cloning legislation

Ms Cooper stressed that the changes would not legalise reproductive cloning.

Cloning research
Heart disease
Spinal cord injuries
"It is absolutely untrue that these regulations will give the go-ahead for reproductive cloning. Reproductive cloning is illegal. It will stay illegal," she said.

The government wanted to embed this ban on reproductive cloning in primary legislation because people across the country found it unacceptable, she said.

But she said the 1990 Act already allowed so-called therapeutic cloning, where embryos were created by cell nuclear replacement, under the strict rules of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

Better outcomes

Ms Cooper said it would not be legal to use embryonic stem cells in medical treatment, but if scientists could find out how they worked it may be possible to re-programme adult stem cells.

"That could be, in the end, the Holy Grail that could allow huge breakthroughs in terms of treatment of degenerative disease," she said.

This might lead to treatments to replace lost heart muscle, replace liver cells in cases of hepatitis, replace bone cells in patients suffering from osteoporosis.

It might also make possible the repair of nerve cells in people with stroke, replace insulin-producing cells in cases of diabetes and change outcomes for those with spinal cord injuries and MS.

Spare embryos

Embryo research is only permitted up to 14 days or before the first signs of neural development, and only if the HFEA is satisfied that the use of embryos is necessary for the purposes of the research.

Otherwise the HFEA will not grant a licence for the research project.

In most cases, the alternative to research would be to let the embryos perish, and thousands of embryos created for IVF are not used every year.

Ms Cooper stressed that the strict constraints of the 1990 Act would remain and the HFEA would still have to licence every research proposal.

The HFEA would also have to ensure that the use of embryos was necessary for the research and that it could not be carried out any other way.

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See also:

14 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
Cloning 'threat' to egg supplies
06 Nov 00 | Health
Spinal paralysis 'breakthrough'
31 Aug 00 | Talking Point
Should human cloning be legalised?
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