Research into human stem cells has the potential to develop treatments for a variety of diseases and should be permitted with safeguards says the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in a new paper Stem cell therapy: the ethical issues.

Research on human embryos is currently permitted for specific problems including infertility, contraception, congenital diseases, and prenatal diagnosis. The Council recommends that the regulation on embryo research be amended to permit research on embryo stem cells for the development of new therapies to treat, for example, Parkinson's disease, stroke and rheumatoid arthritis.

However, the Council concludes that as long as there are sufficient embryos donated for use in research from IVF treatments, there are currently no compelling reasons to allow the creation of additional embryos merely to increase the number of embryos available.

The tissues and organs of the body originate from stem cells. Their unique property is the ability to become specific types of cells such as muscle, heart or nerve cells. Stem cells provide a source from which it is possible to generate specialised cell lines that can replicate indefinitely in the laboratory. These could be stored in cell banks for future research and treatment.

The Council examined the ethical issues which are raised by this new area of research which was not anticipated when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 was drafted.

"We are mainly concerned with the origin of the cells and the way that they are derived," said Dr Sandy Thomas, director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. In particular, the Council is concerned about the use of donated embryos, the creation of embryos for research, the use of fetal tissue and the transfer of a nucleus from a somatic cell. (Somatic cells make up most of the body's tissues.) Research on the transfer of a nucleus from a somatic cell has raised concerns that these developments will increase the likelihood of human cloning, although such a procedure is not permitted in the UK. The Council does not recommend that cloning be permitted as a means of reproduction. The Council considers that the proposed creation of embryos by the transfer of a nucleus from a somatic cell, for research into deriving stem cells, offers such potential medical benefits that research for such purposes should be licensed.

The Council recommends additional safeguards for donors giving consent to the use of embryos to establish stem cell lines, partly because the cell lines could theoretically be traced back to donors. The existing safeguards separate the decision to have an abortion from the decision about any use that can be made of the fetal tissue, and are sufficient, in the opinion of the Council. The paper recommends that expert advice should be sought to evaluate possible implications for public health. "The scope of stem cell research promises major advances in healthcare," said Dr Thomas. Giving examples of the potential benefits, she said, "Cells and tissues could be developed and used for drug testing, and new therapies could become available for people suffering from burns and spinal injury, as well as for diseases such as leukaemia and multiple sclerosis."

Notes to Editors:

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is an independent body, which examines the ethical issues raised by developments in medicine and biology. Established in 1991, it is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.

In July 1999, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics decided to hold a Round Table meeting to consider the ethical issues raised by human stem cell research. This discussion paper is based on that meeting, which took place in September. A draft of the paper was presented to the Chief Medical Officer's (CMO) Expert Advisory Group on Therapeutic Cloning in November.

Attendees of the Round Table meeting on Stem Cell Therapy: the ethical issues

Professor Martin Bobrow CBE, Department of Medical Genetics, Cambridge Institute for Medical Research and Deputy Chairman of Nuffield Council on Bioethics

Professor Tom Baldwin, Department of Philosophy, University of York, member of Nuffield Council on Bioethics

Lady Hornby, Chairman of The Kingwood Trust, member of Nuffield Council on Bioethics

Professor Alexander McCall-Smith, Faculty of Law, University of Edinburgh

Dr Anne McLaren DBE FRS, Wellcome/CRC Institute Cambridge, member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics


Dr Sandy Thomas (Director)

Ms Susan Bull

Ms Julia Fox

Ms Yvonne Melia