Last week, the European Parliament took an unprecedented step: MEPs voted to ban medical research that could lead to cures for diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson’s. This decision is opposed by the UK government, runs contrary to the scientific judgement of the Royal Society and the Medical Research Council, ignores the opinion of the European bioethics advisory group, and overrides the demands of patients’ organisations such as the Parkinson’s Disease Society.
At the heart of the debate are embryonic stem cells. These are contained in the early embryo and go on to produce all the cell types of the foetus and, subsequently, the adult. Embryonic stem cells can be grown in the laboratory then stimulated to develop into specialised cells. Disease and injury often involve death or damage of specific groups of cells, such as dopamine-producing nerve cells in Parkinson’s or insulin-producing cells in type-I diabetes. Scientists are beginning to get results that could ultimately produce laboratory-generated replacements to tackle such conditions. There is still a long way to go, but human embryonic stem cells promise a new dawn in medical practice, the era of cell replacement therapy.
In the UK, the position is absolutely clear - the scientists, public opinion and the government all say the same thing. The European Commission is also supportive of this work, but now a minority, fundamentalist view is leading MEPs to amend the commission’s plans. Their action will prevent the most useful clinical applications of embryonic stem cells and stop any investigations into therapeutic cloning. Illogically, they stop short of a complete ban on basic research, which reflects the muddled thinking of the politicians and lobbyists. Nevertheless, the rug is being pulled from under the scientists who want to develop this area of research into something clinically useful.
MEPs cannot make it illegal to do this work in the UK, but they can make collaboration with European colleagues impossible. There is now a real danger that embryonic stem cells will be cut out of the major Framework programme research collaborations, which could starve this area of funding. With countries such as Australia, Canada and Japan starting well-funded national stem-cell programmes and with private institutions in the US pouring vast sums of money into this work, the only way to compete here is at a European level, with a critical mass of researchers and sustained funding. We are in danger of being left behind.
The political misgivings centre on one question: when does an embryo become a person? Fertilisation is only the start of a process. Human reproduction is very wasteful, and most embryos do not develop even to a stage where a woman is aware of pregnancy. Embryonic stem cells are obtained from five to six-day-old human embryos originally generated for infertility treatment. These embryos cannot develop into a foetus outside a woman’s womb. Some embryos are unsuitable, while others become surplus to requirements, for example because the couple succeed in having children. Under UK law, these “spare” embryos can be donated for research. Couples often welcome the opportunity to put their embryos to a beneficial purpose, though this must always be their personal and free decision.
The implications of a European ban will be very damaging. MEPs should ask themselves honestly whether they can deny a child suffering from juvenile diabetes the prospect of developing a cure in favour of an entity that contains no heart, blood or nerve cells and is destined only to be destroyed or to be kept frozen for ever. They have got to be able to stand in front of someone with Parkinson’s disease and say I don’t care about you - all I care about is this little ball of cells. And they should be prepared to justify their position to the people of Europe.
Director of the Institute for Stem Cell Research
University of Edinburgh