Stem cell delusions - The government juggernaut rolls on

In order for a belief to be considered delusional, argued the psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers, it must be held with absolute conviction and not be changed by compelling counterargument to the contrary. The determination with which the British government has pursued embryonic stem cell research, despite its failure to deliver new therapies, fulfils this definition.

CMF has long opposed embryonic stem cell research as unethical on the basis that, by destroying human blastocysts in order to extract stem cells, it uses embryonic humans as a means to an end. But the evidence is growing that embryonic stem cell research is also unnecessary, as ethical alternatives to embryonic stem cells yield more treatments each month. [1]

The government, on the basis of the (long outdated) 1999 Donaldson Report, has consistently argued that embryonic stem cells were more versatile than adult or umbilical cord blood stem cells and could potentially be used therefore to treat a greater range of diseases. In order to overcome the problems with immune rejection of donor cells, it further recommended that embryonic stem cells be harvested from embryos produced by cell nuclear replacement ('therapeutic cloning'), the same technique used to produce Dolly the Sheep. The patient's own somatic cell nuclei were to be placed into enucleated eggs.

The main problem with this technique was the low success rate (it took 277 attempts to produce Dolly). Difficulties in obtaining the large number of eggs and the highly publicised risks to donors of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) have now led to a change in strategy; the use of animal-human hybrids produced by the same cloning technique.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, currently before Parliament, seeks to legalise this practice, although in a flagrant abuse of the democratic process, the HFEA recently granted two licences for producing animal human hybrids even before the bill had passed. [2] Ironically, on the very day the House of Lords was debating the issue, researchers in both Japan (Yamanaka) and the United States (Thomson) announced that, by inserting four genes, they had successfully reprogrammed human skin cells into cells with all the properties of human embryonic cells, [3] leading Dolly's creator Ian Wilmut publicly to say he was abandoning cloning technology. [4]

To date, not a single embryonic stem cell line has been produced from cloned human embryos, whilst there are over 70 diseases that are currently being treated successfully using adult or umbilical cord blood stem cells. [5] David Burrowes MP, in introducing a recent bill to improve the harvesting and use of cord blood stem cells has further highlighted the fact that the government has its eggs in the wrong basket. [6]

As the truth continues to emerge, there will no doubt be many suffering from degenerative diseases who will be asking why they have not been told the truth and why the government, backed by self-interested biotechnology companies, continues, against the evidence, to drive down a scientific blind alley.

Dr Peter Saunders is General Secretary of the Christian Medical Fellowship www.cmf.org.uk. Printed here with permission.

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References
www.stemcellresearch.org
Green light for hybrid research. BBC, 17 January, 2008. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7193820.stm
Skin transformed into stem cells. BBC, 20 November, 2007. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7101834.stm
Dolly Scientist abandons cloning. BBC, 17 November, 2007. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7099758.stm
www.cordblood.com/caregivers/banking/diseases_treated.asp
MP's life-saving cord blood bid. BBC, 8 January, 2008. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7175464.stm

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