Science offers solutions to many of the challenges we face as a species. From renewable energy and Artificial Intelligence, to gene therapy and space exploration, scientists are constantly pushing the boundaries of human understanding. Yet there are also enormous ethical challenges posed by science. The announcement by a Chinese researcher that he has successfully edited the gene sequence in a set of human twins has caused an international scandal, with many accusing him of unethical behaviour. But does the scandal demonstrate that gene-editing should be banned? Or does it rather indicate the field should be better regulated?
We’ve been here before. A similar ethical quandary was raised in 1998 when human embryonic stem cells were first successfully isolated and grown in a lab. Immediately afterwards, there was a call to ban such research, and many countries did indeed implement new restrictions or outright bans. In the European Union, embryonic stem cell research is permitted in some countries (such as Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Greece, Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands) but is illegal in others (including Germany, Austria, Ireland, Italy, and Portugal).
Stem cell research is an extremely promising field of study that could, potentially, result in cures or new treatments for a range of diseases including Parkinson’s, diabetes, leukaemia and heart disease. Embryonic stem cells are usually taken from four to five day old embryos (blastocysts) that were produced during IVF fertility treatment. It is worth pointing out that these embryos had been rejected for implantation and would anyway be destroyed if not used in research.
Not all stem cell research involves embryos. Adult stem cells can also be extracted, for example from bone marrow or blood, but unlike embryonic stem cells they are more restricted in what cell types they can grow into. There have been advances made into something called “Induced pluripotent stem cells” (also known as iPS cells or iPSCs), which are adult cells that are genetically “reprogrammed” to behave like embryonic stem cells. With this new technology, could the whole issue anyway become a moot point?
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Patrick, who says it’s important for scientific research to be properly regulated. However, he also says we shouldn’t ban entire avenues of research if they could save lives. Does it matter if some countries in Europe ban or restrict certain types of scientific and medical research – such as GMOs, animal cloning, and embryonic stem cell research – while others don’t? Does it hurt scientific research in Europe overall?
To get a response, we spoke to Vytenis Andriukaitis, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, a qualified medical doctor, and a former Lithuanian Minister of Health. How would he respond?
Yes, Patrick raises a very serious question… First of all, please bear in mind that, generally speaking, [banning] science and scientific research is not the right decision. Of course, we can [ask how we can] better regulate [science], and invite the scientific community to present their views on how we can regulate to avoid negative consequences or ethical dilemmas [and to listen to] religious and cultural views. It is good to know that the history of science shows that no one ban helps us to achieve something more. If you remember the history of Andreas Vesalius, who started to discover [the dissection of] dead bodies during the renaissance, of course the church was against it so he decided to do it secretly… And he presented the first atlas of the human body. Now, can you imagine today’s modern surgery without the possibility of using anatomical atlases? Or, for example, Galileo and his discovery and the decision to ban [his research].
Today’s science is very complex and sophisticated. Sometimes you need to have broad scientific communities on board. As you know, we’ve just seen a case in China where a researcher claims he’s successfully modified the genes of human embryos. Immediately, the broader scientific community has expressed the view that one scientist can’t do this [kind of research on their own] because it’s ethically very complicated and can create a lot of dangers. Which means we need to have a broad regulatory framework, internationally accepted rules, procedures, and so on, saying which methods are acceptable and which are not, but always keeping in mind that science likes to have clean horizons and a ban on technologies such as GMOs is not fruitful, and of course animal cloning, biotechnology, embryonic stem cells in some areas of treatment or rare diseases, cancer, and multi-complex diseases. You can’t stop new views from a scientific point of view, and I think we need to encourage all Member States to discuss these issues and not use such bans…
Why are we losing our competitiveness and attractiveness to innovation? Because we have a lot of bans that are not justified. We need to understand very well where we can introduce very strict rules and moratoriums not to do it, because… there is not enough scientific knowledge but we can use scientific methodology, keeping in mind transparency, ethical codes of conduct, and bearing in mind to have a broad scientific community involved.
We also had a comment from Jae, who says there seems to be a lot of controversy around research using embryonic stem cells, but that there is little opposition to using adult stem cells. She wonders if it’s possible to “reprogramme” adult stem cells so they function as embryonic cells and use them instead. Is that possible?
To get a response, we put Jae’s comment to Manuela T. Raimondi, Associate Professor of Bioengineering and Head of the Mechanobiology Lab and the Interdepartmental Live Cell Imaging Lab at the Polytechnic University of Milan. She replied that it was not just possible, but is in fact common:
Since the discovery of cell ‘reprogramming’ a few years ago, the ethical controversy around research using embryonic stem cells is solved because reprogrammed cells do function as embryonic cells and they are already intensely used in research in replacement of embryonic stem
Finally, we had a comment sent in from Fable, who thinks the debate around stem cell research is not about morals or human rights, but rather about a lack of scientific understanding among the general public. Is he right?
Yes, he is right. The science and technology of biological manipulation is evolving at a higher speed compared to the bioethical rules that influence the culture of the general public in this field. For example, reprogrammed cells now used in replacement of embryonic stem cells would never have been discovered without the knowledge provided by decades of research on embryonic stem cell biology. Dissemination of scientific results to the public plays a crucial role in advancing the culture in this field.
Do you support stem cell research? Is the debate around stem cells about ethics and morals, or is it rather about a lack of public understanding of the science involved? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!