COVER STORY: Stem cell research: the way forward
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, April 6, 2002
In the run-up to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting on April 5, the biotechnology industry has undertaken a major campaign to win public support for both destructive human embryo experimentation and embryonic stem cell research.
The attraction of stem cells is that they develop into other cell types (e.g. nerve, heart, liver), and thus provide a potential method of treatment of a range of medical conditions until now regarded as incurable, such as spinal cord injury, Alzheimer's disease, and degenerative heart and liver disease.
Stem cells can be obtained from various sources. The most contentious are those harvested from human embryos, in process of which the embryos die.
However, stem cells have also been harvested from a wide range of tissue, including bone marrow, fat, muscle, liver and skin.
The biotechnology industry has been heavily involved in lobbying Federal Cabinet members and MPs, State Premiers and the media, to block a proposal to Cabinet which supported stem cell research, but did not permit harvesting of human embryonic stem cells from IVF embryos.
The medical scientists are arguing that unless such experimentation is permitted, they will pack their bags and set up their laboratories overseas, where such experimentation is permitted.
Their threats are hollow. It is well known that Victoria is the home of some of the leading medical science companies. Professor Alan Trounson - described in the media as "the pre-eminent researcher in the field", and a supporter of human embryo experimentation - has operated in Victoria for many years. Yet the use of spare IVF embryos for experimentation has been prohibited in Victoria since the 1980s.
In any case, these so-called "spare" IVF embryos were created to enable infertile couples to have children. To use them as a subject of destructive experimentation, or to harvest stem cells from them (and in the process kill them), or to use them as spare parts "factories", is totally unethical.
Quite apart from other considerations, the question must be asked: whose embryos are they? I have not heard Professor Trounson, or his colleagues, suggest that they would seek the approval of the men and women who parented these embryos for their use in their medical experiments.
In a recent 60 Minutes program, the former actor Christopher Reeve - best known for his role as Superman, but now a quadriplegic as a result of a fall from a horse - spoke out in support of embryonic stem cell research, suggesting that opponents of this research are heartless and/or fanatical.
The fact is, as Dr Amin Abboud and others have recently pointed out, "embryonic stem cells have not been shown to help a single patient in the entire scientific literature to date".
Dr Abboud added, "It is tragic that people with irreversible paralysis like the actor Christopher Reeve or people whose children have diabetes should have their suffering exploited for the financial and professional profit of research laboratories."
By contrast, adult stem cells and other ethically acceptable alternatives have already helped many patients, he said, and new clinical uses are announced almost weekly.
These include treatment for juvenile diabetes, spinal cord injury, immune deficiency, corneal repair, and a range of other conditions.
Last year, the stem cell journal, Stem Cells, said:
"We scientists have exaggerated the immediacy of the prospects of clinical therapies using [embryonic] stem cells, and this has led to public misunderstanding ... Prior to clinical use of embryonic and foetal stem cells, it will be necessary to thoroughly investigate the malignant potential of embryonic stem cells." (Stem Cells, September 2001)
While the Dr Strangeloves have commanded the Australian media in support of human embryo experimentation, it is interesting to note that in the United States, there is growing concern about the possible abuses of the new technology.
The Boston Globe recently reported that "a broad coalition of biologists, ethicists, public-health advocates, abortion proponents, and human-rights activists signed a letter to leaders of the US Senate this week, urging a total ban on cloning to make babies and an indefinite moratorium on the creation of cloned embryos for use in medical research." (Boston Globe, March 22, 2002)
Among the signatories were leaders of several environmental groups, together with the president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, and the executive director of Physicians for Human Rights.
In Australia, no one wants to be held responsible for holding back scientific research. But this research must be conducted with due respect for the human person, rather than in the interests of medical scientists, drug companies, or biotechnology companies.
A policy which encourages ethical adult stem cell experimentation - but prohibits human embryo experiments and use of IVF embryos - will ensure that the benefits of this technology become available, with minimal restraints on scientific research.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council