Lack of law on stem cells is foolish and cowardly

The following text was first published in The Sunday Times, 2nd May 2010

Unlike the UK, Ireland has no legislation governing stem-cell research. This has prompted University College Cork and Trinity College Dublin to draw up their own guidelines for scientists who wish to undertake such research on campus.

The consequences of this legislative inaction are potentially serious. Ireland risks becoming a bio-research backwater, as top stem-cell researchers may not want to risk working in a legal vacuum, or in a country perceived as being hostile to their work.

By neglecting to regulate what stem-cell scientists working here can or cannot do, the government risks undermining its own policy of support for scientific research. Stem cell research is the future. It has the potential to provide remedies for incurable illnesses and terrible injuries such as to the spinal cord – allowing people to walk again.

The reason why legislators have avoided this area is because of its links to the moral and legal status of the human embryo. They may be haunted by the damaging, political fight about the status of the unborn child in 1983, and might feel that public attitudes haven’t changed much since.

Some scientists argue that stem-cell research does not require human embryos, as stem cells can be obtained from adult humans. But if that was true, legislation would have been introduced by now, as there are no ethical or political problems about using live adult cells.

The problem is that adult stem cells do have limitations, and less potential than those from embryos, which are more flexible, and can be more easily manipulated to develop into what is required, be it nerve cells for spinal cord injuries, or bone cells to help arthritic patients.

The UK was one of the first countries to introduce legislation regulating research on embryos. In  1990 it established a Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which oversees research, and advises government. This far-sighted legal initiative has resulted in the UK becoming a European leader in the field.

The British position is that only surplus embryos produced in IVF, or which have been specifically produced for research, can be used for stem-cell research. Thus only IVF embryos that would otherwise have been destroyed, or embryos that would not have existed unless scientists created them, can be used. This is a clear, ethical position, and one that Ireland could follow.

The Irish Stem Cell Foundation (ISCF) argues that the lack of legislation makes Ireland a less desirable place to carry out research than the UK, where the law is clear. Stephen Sullivan, chief scientific officer with ISCF, has said: “The current void of legislation puts Irish patients at unnecessary risk and expense, deters investment and expertise coming to Ireland, allows the public to be easily confused about stem cells, and impairs Ireland’s capacity to do internationally competitive R&D in a growing number of areas.”

In the absence of any law, UCC and TCD have introduced their own ethical framework structures. Researchers who want to work with embryonic stem cells must apply to the universities’ boards for approval. The boards assesses the project, and will approve if it has scientific and medical merit, and is considered scientifically ethical. The scientists can then import embryonic stem cells from overseas.

It would make more sense for embryos produced as excess from IVF clinics in Ireland to be used for research, instead of destroyed, as they are now. People who oppose work with stem cells may not understand precisely what’s happening in IVF clinics.

Stem cells have huge potential, but up to now only about ten treatments have proven to be safe and effective in human clinical trials. These include treatments for leukemia, lymphoma and rare blood diseases. Ireland is currently a small player in stem-cell research, but it has the capacity to grow quickly.

Ireland should attempt to sell itself as being supportive of human clinical trials with stem cells. That would bring huge benefits in terms of encouraging more research and development by large bio-pharma companies, and help Ireland to continue attracting top scientific talent.

If the current situation continues, however, and legislators refuse to regulate stem cells and embryo research, then Ireland could damage its hard-won scientific reputation – one of the few positives left from the Celtic tiger.