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image European Research News Centre > Medecine and Health > Facing omnipresent ethical problems
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image image image Date published: 18/12/2001
  image Facing omnipresent ethical problems

 

RTD info 32

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  The moral status of the embryo, genetic engineering, ownership rights on living organisms… The use of stem cells is relaunching a number of sensitive debates initiated by modern biology.
   
     
   

As stem cells are the most recent consequence of ever-accelerating biological progress, it is not surprising that they are triggering most of the current heated debates in the life sciences sector - debates which must steer a course between two dangers. On the one hand, there is the risk of taking hasty decisions (in particular under pressure from international competition), and on the other of passing up the opportunity for therapeutic progress able to relieve suffering and save lives.

The embryo dilemma

Embryonic stem cells pose the most acute of problems. They can only be obtained from embryos aged approximately one week, at the blastula stage. Yet research on embryos is highly controversial, irrespective of the stage of its development. A report by British stem cell experts summed it up as follows: 'A significant body of opinion believes that, as a moral principle, the use of no matter what embryo for research purposes is neither ethical nor acceptable for the reason that an embryo should be recognised as having a full human status immediately it is conceived. At the other end of the spectrum, others claim that the embryo neither requires nor merits special status. Others accept the special status of the embryo as a potential human being, but maintain that the respect due to the embryo increases as it develops, and that in the early stages this respect must be set against the potential benefits of research.'(1)

While some countries finance research on embryos,(2) others refuse to do so, and some actually ban it outright (not counting those with no legislation in this field). In cases where such research is allowed, there is the question of where the embryos come from. Researchers who have developed existing stem cell lines (the exact number is not known, but it undoubtedly runs into dozens) have used surplus embryos. These were created then conserved by freezing with a view to in vitro fertilisation, but then ceased to be part of a parental project, either because the couple had separated or the (IVF) was successful. They were therefore destined to be destroyed. It is not known how many embryos of this kind are available, and if a major research activity were to develop, there are some who inevitably envisage creating in vitro embryos specifically for scientific purposes. Once again, such a decision would have ethical implications as it would be seen as one more step in the direction of embryo reification. Although it may solve the problem of embryo supply, it would create another problem of ovary supply. A number of problems are also raised by the use of tissues from aborted foetuses as many individuals, and European countries, oppose abortion.

Fear of cloning

Another controversial subject is the transfer of the somatic nucleus, sometimes known as 'therapeutic cloning'. This involves transferring the nucleus of a normal cell to a previously enucleated egg, with the aim of creating an embryo carrying a patient's genes in order to extract stem cells compatible with his immune system. In this case, too, there are accusations of embryo reification and, what is more, of opening the door to reproductive cloning or, in other words, the universally condemned practice of creating an embryo carrying the genes of a single individual and then bringing it to its full development.

Finally, present research is taking place within a varied and changing legal framework. Questions are being raised about ownership of cell lines and the tissues they can create and eventually transplant (these cell banks will soon be a reality), and on the patentability of the products and techniques which originate during such research.


(1) Taken from Stem Cell Research: medical progress with responsibility, UK Department of Health, 1990, point 17.
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(2) In the United Kingdom where public financing accepts research along existing lines, but not the creation of new ones. The private sector is subject to the rules laid down by each Member State.
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Stem cells

Promises and precautions

An exceptional exception

Facing omnipresent ethical problems

European projects

 

The embryo at the blastula stage is approximately nine days old. At the centre of this cell mass there is a cavity filled with liquid. The few cells it contains - embryonic stem cells - are the cause of all the excitement among biologists.© INSERM/M.CAZILLIS

The embryo at the blastula stage is approximately nine days old. At the centre of this cell mass there is a cavity filled with liquid. The few cells it contains - embryonic stem cells - are the cause of all the excitement among biologists.
© INSERM/M.CAZILLIS

 

Stem cells conference website

 

 


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