Brussels, 28 Apr 2003
The presence of some of Europe's leading stem cell researchers at the inter-institutional seminar on bioethics in Brussels on 24 April served an important dual purpose.
As experts, their personal views on the ethical use of embryos for research were sought by delegates, but perhaps more crucially, their insights into the methodologies and future potential of such research highlighted some practical sides to the bioethical debate that are often overshadowed by more controversial issues.
However, it was the most controversial issue, that of the moral status of human embryos, that scientists addressed first, and unsurprisingly opinions were divided. Of the two most prominent stem cell researchers present, one, Professor Angelo Vescovi, co-Director of the stem cell research institute at the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, felt that whilst there exists a period following fertilisation when no human life exists, at all stages an embryo is a developing life form and should thus be accorded the same moral status as human beings.
In his research, Professor Vescovi is investigating the potential of treatments using stem cells isolated and removed from adults, so called somatic stem cells. The possible applications of somatic stem cells are similar to those of embryonic stem cells, and include direct transplantation into patients suffering from neurological diseases, which he has already shown to be effective in mice. Perhaps more importantly, such cells can be used in laboratories to develop and test drugs to treat a wide range of disorders.
Some, however, point out that removing stem cells from adults can be extremely difficult, and unlike embryonic stem cells, they do not appear to be pluripotent (they do not possess the ability to develop into any cell in the body), and multiplying them indefinitely in the laboratory does not appear possible either.
Professor Austin Smith, Director of the institute for stem cell research in Edinburgh, is one of the scientists who feels that the potential benefits of embryonic stem cells justifies their use, arguing that an embryo created but unused for in vitro fertilisation (a supernumerary embryo) has no potential to become a life form without first being implanted into a womb. Therefore, according to Professor Smith, it would be wrong to grant the same moral status to a supernumerary embryo as to a living human being.
As Professor Peter Whittaker from Lancaster University pointed out, considering the difference of opinion on the issue among experts and citizens, it is highly unlikely that any one definition of the moral status of embryos could ever be considered representative.
There were other scientific perspectives, however, which appear to change the boundaries of the debate somewhat. For instance, many scientists believe that when they have perfected the process of creating cell lines from embryonic stem cells, it will no longer be necessary to use further embryos to extract stem cells as the pluripotent properties and indefinite multiplicity of the cells will mean that they possess all the resources they will ever need.
While this lends support to the use of stem cells, another argument with its basis in science rather than ethics appears to challenge it. Researchers working with somatic stem cells isolated from adults or aborted foetuses, like Professor Vescovi, argue that the development of drugs using stem cells is by far the most promising future area of research. In order to develop drugs to fight specific disorders, the argument goes, embryonic stem cells are useless, as they do not yet possess the required abnormalities, and due to their source, only represent a small section of human diversity: largely infertile, mostly western, couples.
There are even arguments in the debate that are economic in origin. Supporters of research using embryos warn that if such activities are not supported at EU level, funding opportunities and top scientists in the field will be lost to those areas of the world that do.
It is clear then that while there is a tendency to focus on the most contentious aspects of the stem cell debate, namely the morality of using embryos for research purposes, there are many less obvious arguments that must also be considered. In trying to draft a proposal that achieves a broad consensus on the issue, the Commission will have to address them all.