Stem cell therapy: the ethical issues
The ability to culture human stem cells long term, and possibly indefinitely, and to control how such cells specialise to form the different tissues of the body offers the possibility of major advances in healthcare.
Stem cells have been isolated and cultured, but a great deal of research is required to develop cell lines which can generate replacement cells and tissues to treat many diseases. The use of human pluripotent stem cells is controversial primarily because much of the current research is focused on deriving these cells from human embryos and cadaveric fetal tissue.
We have examined the ethical issues raised by the potential of stem cells derived from donated embryos, embryos created specifically for research purposes, cadaveric fetal tissue and somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).
We consider that the removal and cultivation of cells from a donated embryo does not indicate lack of respect for the embryo. We therefore recommend that research involving human embryos be permitted for the purpose of developing tissue therapies from the derived ES cells and that Schedule 2 of the HFE Act be amended accordingly.
We consider that the use of embryonic tissue in research projects to establish ES cell lines raises different issues relating to consent than other forms of research permissible under Schedule 2 of the HFE Act. Consequently, where specific research regarding the establishment of an ES cell line is contemplated, embryo donors should be asked explicitly whether or not they consent to such research and subsequent therapeutic use of the cell line. We endorse the relevant recommendations of the US NBAC Report.
While there are sufficient and appropriate donated embryos from IVF treatments for use in research, we consider that there are no compelling reasons to allow additional embryos to be created merely to increase the number of embryos available for ES cell research or therapy. However, we suggest that this issue be kept under review.