The success of adult stem cell research is being underplayed in favour of more controversial work using embryonic cells, according to religious figures who blame “aggressive secularism” and the “personal investment” of researchers in their projects for the alleged bias.
The Catholic Church and many Islamic scholars teach that while human embryonic stem cell research is wrong, efforts to develop treatments using adult stem cells and adult cells reprogrammed into embryo-like states should be encouraged.
Worldwide there have been three clinical trials using embryonic cells, which are derived from embryos discarded during in vitro fertilisation treatment, and none using reprogrammed adult or “induced pluripotent stem” (IPS) cells. Last year, the Wellcome Trust called on the European Union to continue funding all avenues of stem cell research as it was “too early to tell which route will be the most effective”.
Speaking at a debate titled “Stem cell research, abortion and the ‘soul of the embryo?’”, Abdul Majid Katme, a spokesman for the Islamic Medical Association UK, said he was astonished that many people did not know about the “high success rate” of adult stem cell technology.
“I tend to believe lately there is a lot of cover-up about success in adult stem cells and people pushing all the time for embryonic stem cell [research],” Dr Katme said.
When questioned, he attributed this to a “militant, aggressive secularism” taking over society.
Meanwhile Gerard Hughes, a Jesuit priest and tutor in philosophy at Campion Hall, a permanent private hall at the University of Oxford, said researchers might be holding back on publicising their work in adult stem cells as they were interested in first obtaining intellectual property rights.
David Albert Jones, director of Catholic institute the Anscombe Bioethics Centre and visiting professor at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham, added that “personal and professional investments” in projects could be a reason “why things continue, even after another option has become viable”.
Researchers in the field - who were not represented on the panel - argue that although IPS cells are promising tools, more research is needed before they can be used safely.
The event on 13 February, which also featured John Harris, Lord Alliance professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester, was part of the Westminster Faith Debates series supported by Lancaster University, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council.