British scientists reacted with surprise and relief to a substantial vote of confidence from the House of Commons — the lower house of the UK parliament — over the use of human embryos for research into therapies for serious diseases.
Members of Parliament (MPs) agreed by 366 to 174 on 19 December to approve changes to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Act of 1990 allowing such research to take place.
“I was very surprised; we were expecting it to be much closer,” says Austin Smith, director of the Centre for Genome Research at the University of Edinburgh, who already holds a licence for carrying out research on human embryos up to 14 days old as permitted by the 1990 act — but is currently restricted to work that is directed at problems of infertility.
Smith, one of the leading UK investigators in stem-cell research, says that a change in the regulations would not have any short-term impact on his research, apart from enabling him to obtain a broader licence. But it would make it possible for him to start work towards potential therapies, perhaps in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.
The proposed change in the legislation had been strongly opposed both by anti-abortion groups and prominent Roman Catholic leaders. Other opponents warned that the interest on obtaining stem cells from human embryos represents the beginning of a “slippery slope” towards human cloning.
Such arguments had been countered by a vigorous lobbying campaign by the scientific and medical establishment, with MPs being given briefings by, among others, the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. The objections were also rejected last summer by a panel set up under the government's chief medical officer, Liam Donaldson (see Nature 406, 815; 2000).
But the most telling contributions to the debate perhaps came from several MPs who told of their personal battles with illness, including Anne Begg (Labour, Aberdeen South) who suffers from a degenerative brittle-bone disease and is confined to a wheelchair.
The proposed change will next be debated in the House of Lords on 16 January, but, given the size of the Commons majority, researchers are optimistic that the Lords might not reject the measure.