When British stem cell researchers found themselves hampered by government regulations, they went to Parliament for help -- and got a surprisingly warm reception. The result was new, improved regulations that empowered scientists to advance their work in a less-restrictive manner.
Stephen Minger, a leading human embryonic stem cell researcher, recalled the experience during a lecture at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy Feb. 6. He said the experience surpassed the expectations of many scientists, who had hoped, at best, to merely educate British politicians about the research. The lesson learned was that collaboration between scientists, combined with efforts to educate policymakers, is crucial in overcoming negative perceptions and fears associated with this relatively new field of science, he said.
"If you believe in it, you have to do it," said Minger, director of the Stem Cell Biology Laboratory and senior lecturer at the Wolfson Centre for Age-Related Diseases at King"s College London. He urged other scientists to step forward and fight for better legislation when needed.
In his lecture, "The New Consensus: How Scientists and Government Created New Embryo Legislation in the United Kingdom," Minger emphasized that the constraints U.K. researchers faced during the early days of stem cell research were due to strict regulations implemented by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which monitors human embryo research in the United Kingdom.
The inhibitory nature of those regulations prompted researchers to take action and promote legislation that would allow for the creation and use of animal-human embryos in the hopes of expanding scientific practices. The main objective of the researchers was to use stem cells from the embryos as a means to understand and develop tools for human disease, such as for therapeutic purposes and drug discovery.
Minger described the cohesive strength of the scientific community in its fight in Parliament to pass a bill that would permit hybrid embryo research. Much of the controversy surrounding hybrid stem cell research was based on objections by religious groups and a deeply rooted public fear of genetically created embryos combining animal and human cells. By educating legislators on the subject and highlighting the importance of this research on future studies, researchers managed to acquire the support of even the most conservative politicians. The bill that was passed included defined terms and regulations on how the embryos could be used.
Minger's lecture was sponsored by the Baker Institute"s Science and Technology Policy Program with support from the state of Qatar and its emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, through the State of Qatar Endowment for International Stem Cell Policy. Funding was also provided by the U.K. Science & Technology Section; British Consulate-General, Houston; and the Texas/U.K. Collaborative.