Only last month, the strength of feeling over stem-cell technologies was powerfully demonstrated by the polarized reactions to a publication in Cell describing the creation of cloned human embryos for stem cell research.
In response to this call, The University of Melbourne's Professor Bob Williamson made the following statement:
Every biomedical researcher, as well as every person with an interest in ethics, should read the paper by Pera and Trounson in this week’s issue of Nature.
Decisions about ethics should be based on accurate information about the scientific issues involved. There is hope that stem cells might be used to treat inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis, or as part of cancer therapy, but the problem is rejection – the cells will usually be most useful if they come from the person who is needing the treatment.
How do we make cells that will be accepted by the body? For human therapy, Pera and Trounson point out that we still do not know if human iPS cells (stem cells with multiple possible fates induced from adult skin cells, for instance) are equivalent to embryonic stem cells from human embryos. The recent report from Mitalipov claiming that it is possible to make a cloned human embryo using nuclear transfer from a patient’s cell, and then derive early pluripotent human stem cells, is an alternative way to get stem cells that would be patient-specific. Further study is needed to confirm this result, and to see where these cells fit into the spectrum of pluripotency, cancer formation, and possible rejection.
While Pera and Trounson rightly say that more experiments will be needed (and it would be foolish, for the sake of the millions who need better treatment of genetic and cellular diseases, to restrict such experiments), they also point out that doctors and scientists should be proactive in engaging in the ethical debates around new scientific discoveries and techniques.
There will be a very small number of people who (often for deeply held religious reasons) oppose all experiments with embryo-derived stem cells, and a very small number who will support any science-driven experiment, whatever the implications. However, as the article points out, there are many more who are “in the middle”, who want progress and are willing to consider experiments when they are clearly linked to medical progress, and when boundaries (such as no cloning of humans, or living animal-human hybrids) are set.
We should, as scientists, begin to discuss the ethical issues now, so there is time to set the scene with accurate scientific information.