Stem cells – how much should we tamper with the gift of life?

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Series Details Vol.12, No.5, 9.2.06
Publication Date 09/02/2006
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Two MEPs consider the merits of stem cell research

It is possible to undertake vital research into stem cell therapies without destroying human embryos, says Peter Liese

Research with human stem cells is one of the most promising areas in medicine. Of course not every single hope can be fulfilled, but stem cell research is not fiction, in some areas it is already applied technology. For 65 diseases there are already clinical trials on human beings. That means that in 65 different areas, a treatment of human beings with stem cells was more or less successful. For some sorts of cancer, mainly leukaemia, stem cell treatment is already an established alternative. During the past years, technologies based on human cells have been developed to treat bone or cartilage damage or skin damage (after severe burning, for instance).

In other areas, research is not yet as far but there are at least first attempts in curing human beings, for instance in Parkinson's disease and spinal injuries. Also, several medical teams have successfully worked in repairing heart damage.

Did the scandal in South Korea show that stem cell research cannot fulfil its promises? In fact, what happened in South Korea was a big scandal and a big disappointment for a lot of people who put their hopes in stem cell research. For me, the most dramatic aspect is that it took seven months to find out that one of the most praised scientists in the world who had even been proposed for the Nobel Prize was just a cheat.

In fact, it would have been possible with a very simple genetic test to prove that the so-called breakthrough was just a fake. But even before the Hwang scandal, it was obvious to a lot of experts that the future of stem cell research does not lie in embryonic stem cell research or in so-called therapeutic cloning. In all the 65 cases where treatment of human beings has been done more or less successfully, the cells used were adult stem cells or stem cells from the umbilical cord.

With or without the faked study of Hwang, embryonic stem cells have severe disadvantages. The main disadvantage is that they cannot be controlled when transplanted to human beings and cancer (teratoma) does develop. Beside this, there are the ethical arguments: exploitation of women through egg cell trading, the use of human embryos for reproductive cloning and the instrumentalisation of the beginning of human life. That's why most of the EU member states ban the cloning of human embryos for research purposes and at least nine countries have banned all kinds of destructive research with human embryos.

In my opinion, it is possible to use the advantages of stem cell research without destroying embryos. But even the successful alternatives that do not face fundamental ethical problems are not supported sufficiently in the European Union. On the one hand, the financial support for any kind of research is quite low in Europe; the National Institute of Health in the United States spends about 50 times more for medical research and biotechnology than the European Commission. On the other hand, the regulatory environment is quite difficult also for ethically undisputed technologies. Companies that want to put products to cure skin damage on the market, for instance, have to face 25 different sets of legislation. In some countries these products are treated like medical devices, in some countries they are treated like drugs, in some countries they are covered by the transplantation law, sometimes all the three legislations apply.

That is why researchers and companies that are engaged in this area often spend more of their time dealing with authorities than dealing with patients and their research.

I very much welcome the proposal of the European Commission on Advanced (Medical) Therapies. It would introduce a simple and coherent European approval system without undermining the right of the member states to legislate on ethically disputed technologies. Parliament and Council should adopt legislation with the necessary clarification as soon as possible.

  • German centre-right MEP Peter Liese is a member of the European Parliament's committee on environment, public health and food safety and a substitute on the committee on industry, research and energy.

The public needs reassurance that stem cell research is taking place within an ethically sound framework , says Fiona Hall

The ultimate medical goal of stem cell research is to engineer replacement tissue that would help the body to heal itself. Many diseases involve the death or destruction of healthy cells - for example, brain cells in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases and pancreatic cells in diabetes. Given the ageing population in Europe, such conditions are set to pose one of the greatest medical challenges of the 21st century.

Research activity embraces both embryonic and adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are undifferentiated and have the ability to develop into virtually any human tissue but adult stem cells are partially specialised and less flexible. Furthermore, adult stem cells have a higher chance of genetic mutation caused by exposure to a variety of external factors such as UV rays and toxins. They are also hard to find: in bone marrow only one in every 10,000 to 15,000 cells is a stem cell.

From a research and application point of view, embryonic stem cells are far more readily available, pose less risk of DNA abnormalities and have the greatest potential for growth and specialisation. But so little is known about the full potential of stem cells that it makes sense to push ahead with research on all types of stem cell, whether from bone marrow, umbilical cord blood or embryo blastocysts.

The proposal for the European Framework Programme 7 highlights health as a research theme and specifies the need to ensure further development of tools essential for the success of innovative therapeutic approaches with potential application in many diseases and disorders.

Stem cell research fits squarely into this theme. What public opinion needs is reassurance that such research takes place within an ethically sound regulatory framework. In the UK, stem cell research funding is public, thereby avoiding patenting issues and unethical profiteering and allowing proper public scrutiny. The UK has established the world's first ever stem cell bank, working to build up the 10,000 stem cell lines estimated to be needed to match up to 80% of the world's population. Six other EU member states - the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden - are also known to be deriving stem cell lines. Here is an obvious area where co-ordinated EU-wide research within an agreed ethical framework would both add value and offer reassurance to the public.

The recent South Korean research fiasco has shown why it is so important to have an open and informed public debate about stem cell research. The discredited South Korean research was a travesty of scientific standards. It was also on a quite separate topic - the derivation of embryonic stem cells from human cloning, as opposed to the derivation of stem cells from 'excess' embryos produced in the course of fertility treatment. But where public understanding of an issue is low there is an ever-present risk that bad headlines can cause confusion and undermine research.

At present barriers do exist to full collaboration on stem cell research within Europe because of widely differing national regulatory frameworks.

Research will continue to proceed apace in some member states such as the UK but the added value of cross-European collaboration will be missing unless the current barriers are removed.

Stem cell research will proceed globally whether or not the EU decides to collaborate and commit resources to it.

The question is whether Europe wants to be wholeheartedly part of the process. Are Europeans content for this area of scientific discovery to be one on which we sit on the sidelines? Or will we be full participants, thereby making sure that embryonic stem cell research continues to be carried out within an ethically rigorous framework?

  • UK Liberal Democrat MEP Fiona Hall is a member of the European Parliament's committee on industry, research and energy.

Two MEPs consider the merits of stem cell research.

Article is part of a European Voice Special Report, 'New Technologies'.

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