Bioethics: Move to harvest human embryo stem cellsby Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
, April 22, 2000
In a publicity exercise clearly designed to influence a Federal government inquiry into human cloning, Dr Alan Trounson and Dr Martin Pera, of the Monash Institute for Reproduction and Development at Monash University, have announced that they have used human embryo stem cells to grow human nerve cells.
This latest announcement was reminiscent of the Institute's publicity campaign featuring bouncing, smiling IVF babies at the time when the Victorian government had a select committee that was considering restricting IVF to married couples several years ago.
The embryo stem cells were imported from Singapore and are taken from an early embryo at the blastocyst stage of development. This creates two fundamental moral issues.
First, the process destroys the human embryo.
Second, under certain circumstances stem cells from an early embryo have the capacity to develop into a complete human being, as happens when an early embryo divides to give identical twins. It is therefore likely that stem cells from an early embryo have the same moral status as the embryo from which it was derived.
Stem cells from the early embryo, as used by the Monash researchers, should be distinguished from somatic stem cells found in a fully developed human being. The latter are capable of developing into different forms of human tissue. They are likely to provide medical scientists with a more direct means for developing replacement tissue and organs than using embryo stem cells. They have the advantage of being able to match the patient without fear of rejection.
As somatic stem cells do not involve the destruction of an embryo or have the capability of becoming an embryo, their use does not invoke the fundamental moral objections associated with embryo stem cells.
The actions of the Monash researchers in using embryo stem cells are in direct contravention of advice provided by Professor John Catford, the Director of Public Health and Development, Victorian Department of Human Services, who on October 1999 wrote:
"I am advised that Victorian legislation under the Infertility Treatment Act of 1995 makes any attempt at cloning illegal. Victorian legislation also bans destructive embryo research. Totipotent stem cells are considered equivalent to embryos, whether they arise from fertilisation of nuclear transfer or any other means.
"I will ensure that clinics registered by the Infertility Treatment Authority are aware of this advice."
In this context, research ethicist, Mr Nick Tonti-Filippini has commented, "There is an issue of propriety in using ES [embryo stem] cells from such a source. That issue of propriety is relevant to whether a person who so acts, in frustration of the obvious intention of the Parliament, is a fit and proper person to hold a research licence under the Act.
"But more than that, the reported admission is that they have used human ES [embryonic stem] cells for research to produce nerve cells when they were apparently advised that this was in breach of the law."
Breaches of the Act are subject to heavy fines and gaol terms.
Meanwhile, a panel of British experts, led by the government's chief medical officer, Dr Liam Donaldson, has decided that the potential benefits of cloning human embryos outweigh the ethical objections.
The London Daily Telegraph reports that the panel agreed to recommend changes to the law to allow the use of cloned embryos to create tissues to treat the sick.
The paper quoted unidentified government sources as saying ministers were almost certain to end the ban on the "therapeutic cloning" of embryos for research that could eventually cure kidney, liver or heart disease.
It quoted one unidentified member of the panel as saying: "The potential is enormous. This could allow us to regrow a heart muscle or bone marrow and that is not a threat to humanity."
Public Health Minister Tessa Jowell reaffirmed the government's opposition to human reproductive cloning, but said it would have to consider carefully whether to allow therapeutic cloning research to improve treatment for serious diseases.
However, this has not deterred British scientist Harry Griffin, who is determined to clone a human being. In an interview with Italy's La Repubblica newspaper, he described how he intends to use ova left over from IVF treatments for cloning.
Mr Griffin denied that killing embryo involved killing human life. He said that he only awaited the approval of the government to start the cloning process.
Cloning of human embryos for reproduction or research is forbidden under Britain's 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.