Monday 21 July 2008

New research paper on stem cells

An ethical approach to stem cell treatment by Alison Davies of ‘No Less Human’

Scientific research is proceeding at such a pace that it is often difficult to keep track of the latest developments that impact on human life. One of the fastest developing areas in this regard is stem cell treatment. Alison Davies, who heads No Less Human, SPUC’s division concerned with promoting the rights of people with disabilities, has written a research paper into the various forms of stem cell treatment and whether an ‘ethical approach’ is possible. Her paper is extensive in the ground it covers and exemplary in the presentation, which is both scientific and accessible to the layman.

It is very difficult to cover here all the topics which this research paper touches on. Two points of particular importance, however, stood out to me. First was the depth and clarity of Alison’s account of recent developments in adult stem cell (pictured) research, this includes great discussion of recent discoveries which have been termed induced Pluripotent stem cells (iPs) cells, which are mature cells ‘reprogrammed’ to have great flexibility in terms of the cell types into which they can transform.

It has been the contention of many scientists that the major difference between adult and embryonic stem cells is that the latter has great capability (or plasticity) to transform into many different types of cell, and thus are more useful in the fight against disease. The paper reports, however, that “the evidence which has been assembled since 2007 strongly supports the proposition that induced pluripotent stem cells have a plasticity comparable with that of any embryonic stem cell line.”

The second feature of this research paper which makes it an invaluable resource is that Alison looks at the specific promises of stem cell treatment in seven specific conditions: Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, spinal cord injury, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and bone disorders. In these sections the research paper not only manages to pick out the milestones in recent research into the conditions themselves, but from the evidence of a multiplicity of scientists, aims to predict how stem cell treatment might help those who suffer from these conditions.

Yet, as one would expect from a pro-lifer who has spent her life fighting for the rights of people with disabilities, Alison Davies does not shy away from criticism of the many scientists who have turned a blind eye to the ethics of killing embryos simply because some good, somewhere down the line might come of it. Alison writes:

“I am totally appalled at the suggestion (made both by scientists and by the British Government) that unethical stem cell research using human embryos is somehow justified because it might “help” people like me. I cannot think of anything more reprehensible than to suggest that it is acceptable to research upon and kill the most vulnerable of human individuals because there may be something in it for me.”

This research paper provides a very useful starting point for those scientists and members of the general public who would either like a survey of the scientific situation as it stands, or would like to launch into a more detailed study themselves.