Volume 95, Issue 59

Thursday, January 17, 2002
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Debate over embryonic stem cell research rages on

The fusion of technology and art

Debate over embryonic stem cell research rages on

By Daren Lin and Mike Marinett
Gazette Staff

Though its potential benefits seem well-suited to the land of science fiction, embryonic stem cell research has been the subject of rigorous debate over the last 12 months.

An embryonic cell is a master cell found in the human embryo that can conceivably be developed into any part of the human body. Due to the nature of their cellular origins, the use of embryonic cells is shrouded in a debate that rages across social, religious, medical and political lines. The future of this reasearch has vast implications all members of society, according to Andrew Watson, associate professor of physiology at Western.

Watson said stem cells have the potential to become any cell type, including liver, heart or nerve cells. "These cells haven't yet received the instruction to become a particular type of cell," Watson explained.

"People talk about the possibility of treating diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes," he said, adding stem cells may also be used to repair damaged tissues, such as those in spinal cord injuries.

However, the morality of using embryonic cells for research has stirred up controversy both inside and outside of the medical community.

Jim Roche, a member of the CHAC's policy analysis and government relations department, said the use of human embryos in stem cell research is contradictory to those of the Catholic faith, who believe in the sanctity of all human life.

However, Roche actively supports the use of adult stem cells for research purposes. "One argument [says] embryonic cells are more flexible than adult stem cells, but research shows that adult stem cells can be just as useful."

"[Stem cell research is] a very sensitive issue that must be handled with careful guidelines," said Gordon Winocur, the science director for the Alzheimer's Society of Canada. Winocur said Alzheimer's researchers are just beginning to investigate the possible applications of stem cells for treatment purposes.

Gazette File Photo
Media scrutiny and publications like this one have brought stem cell research to the forefront of public consciousness.

Stephen Little, national director of client services with the Canadian Paraplegic Foundation, is a paraplegic himself. "Stem cell research is an exciting opportunity and an important development for those with [spinal cord injuries]," he explained.

Little said paraplegics live with a damaged spinal chord bundle – tissue that could be replaced in the future with stem cell tissue grown in a lab.

The Canadian government is currently involved in the amendment of draft legislation that will produce a national policy on embryonic stem cell research.

Bonnie Brown, a Liberal Member of Parliament for Oakville and head of a parliamentary committee on health, said her committee made their recommendations on stem cell policy in December.

"We came up with recommendations we felt the general population would be comfortable with," she explained, noting the committee witnessed presentations from a variety of interest groups, including scientists, ethicists and religious factions.

The committee recommended strictly controlled research on surplus human embryos, she said, noting leftover human embryos from fertility clinics should only be used when there is no other way to accomplish the research.

She said any individual who wished to conduct embryonic research would have to apply for a license that would expire after a limited time and would be subject to inspection from a yet to be created government agency.

Tara Madigan, a spokeswoman for Health Canada, said the government is currently examining the recommendations produced by the health committee and making adjustments to the legislation.

"We support the draft legislation because it provides a principled and balanced approach," said Suzanne Tobin, national director of communications and marketing for Parkinson Society Canada.

"The impending [legislative decision] will affect what we begin funding," said Faye Kurt, media relations for the Canadian Institute of Health Research. "Right now, there is a moratorium on embryonic stem cell research."

Kurt said there are many university researchers who have shown an interest in embryonic research, adding she expected many research proposals if embryonic research is given the green light.

"A lot more research on animal models is necessary before the technology can be transferred to humans," Watson cautioned.

Until five or six years ago, all stem cells were thought to be only available in embryos. However, recent research has shown adults have a small pool of stem cells that are difficult to locate, but are currently being used in research across Canada, he said.

The future is now. Within the next few months, the modified stem cell legislation may be presented in parliament for its second reading. The final decision on its contents will have a profound effect on the future of research and public health in Canada.

–with files from Chris Lackner

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