By Steffan Rhys
CONTROVERSIAL stem cell research is crucial to the potential discovery of cures for some of the country’s most devastating illnesses, a Welsh scientist will argue today.
Dr Arwyn Jones, of Cardiff University, will tell an audience at the Eisteddfod’s main science lecture that the technology could cure diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Parkinson’s, as well as help understand conditions such as infertility.
He will say that the staunch ethical concerns of groups such as the Catholic Church, anti-abortion groups and some MPs are outweighed by the research’s potential benefits, and that some of these concerns may now diminish with the development of adult stem cell technology.
Human embryonic stem cells are usually derived after IVF treatment from a structure called a blastocyst that forms a few days following fertilisation but before it attaches to the womb and develops into an embryo.
These cells have the potential to develop into any of the tissues and organs of the body and could therefore be used as seeds to make new cells and tissues for patients suffering from many diseases. Some of the pioneering work in this field is currently being done at Cardiff University by Nobel Prize winner Professor Sir Martin Evans.
But opponents say the practice compromises the sanctity of human life as it means deriving benefits from the destruction of human embryos: fertilised eggs in early stages of development.
More extreme viewpoints say the practice is tantamount to murder, abortion, “playing God” and even paves the way for cloned human beings.
“One of the ethical arguments raised is that if you are growing stem cells you are growing a new human being. I totally dismiss that argument,” said Dr Jones, a senior lecturer in molecular cell biology at the Welsh School of Pharmacy, whose lecture is backed by the Wellcome Trust.
“The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act does not allow scientists to work on cells past 14 days.
“But that doesn’t remove the ethical concerns. Some people believe a fertilised egg is the beginning of life and should not be tampered with in any shape or form. That is very much the view from Rome and from the White House.
“The majority of scientists working in the field would totally disagree. The potential to cure diseases outweighs these issues.
“They want to study the development of the embryo for issues like fertilisation and their potential to cure diseases. They have no interest in cloning a human being or anything as ridiculous as that.
“However, there have to be very strict guidelines as to how long we can grow stem cells or embryos in a laboratory and these are formally set out in the Act.”
The research is legal in the UK, where it is among the most advanced in the world. It is also legal in the US but no federal funding is allocated to it, following staunch opposition from the Bush administration.
Stem cells are derived from embryos not required for IVF treatment, but one of the major hurdles to the research is their limited supply.
This has led to debate on using human cells in animal embryos, another controversial practice which has provoked outrage among opponents who have painted a vision of monstrous half-animal, half- human creatures, another vision Dr Jones dismisses as absurd.
“Think of the health of society and you think of things like heart disease and cancer, and stem cell technology has the potential to cure some of them, as well as others that won’t spring immediately to mind, like blindness,” he said.
“Stem cells have the potential to assume any type of cell in the body. That is their job.
One of the uses of new technology could be to use those cells to grow new tissue.
“A person suffers from Parkinson’s due to a loss of dopamine in the brain. If you could put those cells back into a human being, then you have one way of treating Parkinson’s.
“But one of the most important aspects is that we now know that adults have stem cells in their own bodies and, therefore, there may not be a need to always use embryos.
“It is a case of finding where they are, how many different types we have, and growing those as opposed to using embryos.
“The hope is that adult stem cells will replace embryonic stem cells. But there are differences between them, the most obvious being the fact that adult stem cells have been in the body for a number of years and may not have the full potential of embryonic stem cells.
“Further, it used to be the case that you had to destroy the embryo to isolate the cell.
This is no longer the case in some cases and that alleviates some of the problems with having to destroy an embryo and, essentially, a human being, to grow stem cells.”
Yesterday, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC)called for embryonic stem cell research to be immediately abandoned.
“The potential for stem cell research is quite amazing and research on ethically obtained stem cells is already showing results,” said SPUC’s Paul Danon.
“But with embryonic stem cells the more serious issue is the destruction of human life.
“You are talking about an embryo that can’t give consent even if it wanted to. They are paying with their lives for this research.
Fewpeople would say the objectives justify the price of a human life to achieve it.
“You can no more justify it than you can any other abuse of a human being.”
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