HL Deb 30 March 1982 vol 428 cc1271-4

2.45 p.m.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what research is being carried out into cystic fibrosis and at what cost.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Lord Elton)

My Lords, the primary responsibility for publicly-funded biomedical research lies with the Medical Research Council. The council receives a grant in aid from the Department of Education and Science; this has to cover the whole of its field of interest. In 1980–81, it was £71.8 million. Of this, about £100,000 was spent on research related to cystic fibrosis. Other work supported by the council may also prove significantly beneficial in this field. Research into this terrible disease is, of course, also going on in various universities and medical schools, but I cannot say what the cost of this may be.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Minister aware that the Cystic Fibrosis Research Trust has, through voluntary endeavour since 1964, garnered £2 million, which has made a massive contribution, as the Minister has said, towards trying to rid our nation of this horrid disease: Is the Minister aware that there seems to be a need for better co-operation between the research trust and the Medical Research Council, particularly in four specific fields: the isolation of the abnormal gene; the identification of the carriers of the gene; pre-natal diagnosis; and control of the illness and control of pseudonionas aeruginosa? Will the Minister make some endeavour—I am sure that he will—to try to bring the research units closer together so that this nation can be rid of the curse of an evil disease?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am aware of the very valuable work which is done by the Cystic Fibrosis Research Trust and, indeed, of the way in which it has attracted non-public funds for that work, which is extremely welcome. As to the work to which the noble Lord has referred, I point out that the isolation of the gene is a very difficult matter which has not yet been achieved. I would say that the Medical Research Council is aware of the importance of this disease and that the Division of Inherited Metabolic Diseases at the clinical research centre of the MRC includes in its forward programme research into biochemical derangement in cystic fibrosis and also the detection of carriers of this disease. Perhaps I may detain the House a moment longer. It is, in fact, the result of the coincidence of a recessive gene in each parent of a union and when those recessive genes coincide there is a one in four chance that the child resulting will be suffering from cystic fibrosis. It is, of course, a matter for the parents to decide whether they take that chance or not.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that at the moment there is a rather worrying general increase in the incidence of genetically transmitted diseases, of which cystic fibrosis is but one, and that that surely means that the Government should at the moment increase their investment in genetic counselling services rather than reduce it, as appears to be the case: Is the Minister further aware that young people contemplating marriage—and some young people do contemplate marriage nowadays—show a great willingness to take advantage of genetic counselling services where those are available, but unhappily in some areas they are not available at all?

Lord Elton

My Lords, of course genetic counselling, admirable as it may be, is a different question, and I cannot respond to the noble Lord's probings on that front without notice. As to the other question which the noble Lord asked, I should say that the Government do, through their departments of health, give guidance to the Medical Research Council as to the need for research and that the need for research into genetically determined illness is, in fact, one of the matters to which they have directed their attention and to which they are responding, as I have just said, by their work at the centre.

Lord Maybray-King

My Lords, in the field of spina bifida and cystic fibrosis—and all the diseases which afflict and handicap children—is not the remarkable feature of our country that so much voluntary work is being done by groups of people and that those groups of people are co-operating with the professions?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the voluntary spirit is one of the hallmarks of this nation, of which we are all proud and from which we all benefit. I should like to endorse what the noble Lord has said and what the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, has implied in this matter, that the voluntary agencies do great work in the medical field as well as in other fields.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I, too, applaud voluntary effort: However, on this subject of medical research, is it not about time that we—and I am not talking about Governments—the people, with the Government giving the lead, directed a great many more of our resources into research in the field of preventive medicine, rather than possibly spending hundreds and billions of pounds on methods to destroy life: Rather, should we not vote money to save life?

Lord Elton

My Lords, prevention, whether in medicine or in war, is always better than cure. It is my belief that this Government's policies are far more likely to prevent the disease of war in the world than the policies advocated by the noble Lord.

Lord Wells-Pestell

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Minister in a position to inform the House as to the number of deaths in young children resulting from this particular disease? Also, is he in a position to say what success the Medical Research Council is having in this particular field?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the incidence of the disease is about one in 1,600 children. An increasing proportion of those children now survive to adult life. I cannot tell the noble Lord how long into adult life they typically survive. As to the degree of success being achieved, I think that there are a number of areas which are encouraging. I believe that there is an ability to diagnose the disease early in the life of a child by means of a blood sample after six weeks. In fact, it is beginning to appear that we may be able to diagnose the disease in utero, which has very important implications for what the parents do about it. In addition, as I say, through the MRC, the Government will be funding research in the future.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I am deeply grateful, as I am sure is the House, for the obvious research that he has carried out into my Question? Would he not further agree that, if the exchanges across the Floor of this House could be turned into reality, we should be taking a dramatic step forward in ridding our nation of cystic fibrosis in the manner in which all medical research has to go on, in both the curative and the preventive elements?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for showing that we share the same interest in this matter.