Intended for healthcare professionals


Commons votes for human embryo stem cell research

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: (Published 06 January 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:7
  1. Susan Mayor
  1. London

    British MPs have backed proposals to permit research with human embryonic stem cells. Under current regulations, embryos up to 14 days old can be used for some specific research purposes, to treat infertility, and in the diagnosis of genetic and chromosomal disorders.

    Under the new draft regulation, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulates this area, would be able to license a wider range of research to explore the therapeutic potential of stem cells in the treatment of several disorders, such as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

    Two thirds of MPs voted to adopt recommendations made in a report by Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer. The public health minister Yvette Cooper said that the new research could hold “the key to healing within the human body” and offer hope to people with degenerative diseases. Adult stem cells do not yet offer an alternative to research with embryonic stem cells, because stem cells from embryos can differentiate into a wide range of cells or tissues. “Therein lies their power,” Ms Cooper said. “For diseases where tissues will not repair on their own, stem cells may be the only thing on the horizon that holds out any hope.”

    A wide range of organisations that support patients with chronic diseases, including the Parkinson's Disease Society, Diabetes UK, the Alzheimer's Society, and the Huntington's Disease Association, favour changing the regulations on using embryonic stem cells in research. The British Heart Foundation and the Cancer Research Campaign also support the new regulations, as do medical and scientific associations including the BMA and the Royal Society.

    However, other organisations fear that the new regulations might open the way to human cloning. Peter Garrett, research director at the antiabortion charity Life, said, “Once you open the floodgates on the production of human cloned embryos, you are setting up the preconditions for full pregnancy cloning. My view is that we are only a couple of years away from cloning human beings.”

    Shadow health secretary Liam Fox said that he was morally against the use of cells from embryos and had not been convinced that there was no alternative. It was unrealistic to think, he said, that such research could be halted, and so tough rules were needed to set the moral boundaries. “Just because we can do something does not mean we have to. We need to establish a clear framework within which to operate.”

    The text of the parliamentary debate can be found at