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Reprinted from The Observer Sunday, 18-May-2008

(Text unaltered but links and definitions added)

Why I believe stem cell researchers deserve our backing

Gordon Brown

It was in 1998 that James Thomson, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin, successfully removed stem cells from spare embryos at fertility clinics.

His discovery established the world's first human embryonic stem cell line and launched stem cell research into the scientific mainstream.

A decade on from that moment of discovery, Parliament will make decisions this week that will affect not only the pace of scientific advance, but also the rights of different individuals to benefit from scientific advances already made in the complex field of embryology.

Should scientists be given the legal framework they say they need to pursue new cures and treatments through stem cell research or will we turn our back on these potential advances?

Should children who face death or critical illness find new hope in scientific advances that would allow their new brother or sister to be not just a blessing to their family, but also a saviour sibling to them? And should people be able to approach IVF clinics without fear of discrimination on the grounds of their sexual orientation?

My answer to all those questions is an unequivocal yes.

I have deep respect for those who do not agree with some of the provisions in the bill because of religious conviction. But I believe that we owe it to ourselves and future generations to introduce these measures and, in particular, to give our unequivocal backing, within the right framework of rules and standards, to stem cell research.

In the 10 years since James Thomson's discovery, scientists have shown that embryonic stem cells have the potential to help create replacement cells for a broad array of tissues and organs, including the heart, liver and pancreas.

Britain is at the forefront of this research and responsible for much of the worldwide progress, so it is vital not just for us but for the world that we continue to play that role.

With adult stem cells already being used in treatments for conditions including leukemia and heart disease, scientists are close to the breakthroughs that will allow embryonic stem cells to be used to treat a much wider range of conditions, especially those affecting the brain and nervous system.

Stem cell research therefore makes it possible to contemplate new and effective treatments and cures for diseases that have afflicted mankind over centuries - from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's to conditions such as cancer that affect every family.

Indeed, medical researchers believe that stem cell therapy has the potential to derive new knowledge to change dramatically the treatment of many other human afflictions, including spinal cord injuries and muscle damage.

E mbryonic stem cell research has always been controversial and I respect the views of all those with religious convictions which they see as precluding this type of research. But I also see the profound opportunity we have to save and transform millions of lives through this strand of medicine.

That is why we have - patiently and with full regard for religious concerns - sought to introduce clear laws which permit the use of stem cells within a clear, managed, legal framework, subject to the strictest supervision.

And there is one major and controversial issue we must confront head on if we are to make further progress. Around the world, researchers now face a severe shortage of embryonic stem cells.

They argue that the safest way to maintain progress is to make use of animal eggs from which the animal genetic material is almost entirely removed, then a human cell nucleus added, to make them compatible for research on human diseases.

If these 'human admixed embryos' survive for a few days, stem cells may be collected from them and grown in culture. The embryos are then destroyed.

By permitting the use of this technique, we may be able to bring to an end the critical limiting factor in stem cell research: the lack of human eggs from which to create embryos and collect stem cells.

Right now, teams of scientists in London and Newcastle are researching conditions such as Alzheimer's using this technique, but they face uncertainty because there is no clear legal framework to govern their work.

Our bill will provide such a framework to support the research but within clear boundaries.

Admixed embryos will be allowed only where they are used for clear scientific purposes and it will be illegal to keep them for longer than 14 days. It will also be illegal to implant them into women or into any animals.

Let me be clear: if we want to sustain stem cell research and bring new cures and treatments to millions of people, I believe admixed embryos are necessary. The question for me is not whether they should exist, but how their use should be controlled.

The doctors and scientists I speak to are committed to what they see as an inherently moral endeavour that can save and improve the lives of thousands and, over time, millions of people.

They believe they can combine this work with a deep commitment to the highest ethical standards and a sincere respect for religious beliefs.

That is what this bill does and that is why I will be using my free vote this week to support these changes.

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