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Stem cells: One man's principles are another man's pain

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Junior Minister Sean Sherlock

Junior Minister Sean Sherlock

Junior Minister Sean Sherlock

THERE seem to be differing views on the importance of the licensing of the Centre for Cell Manufacturing Ireland. The licence has just been granted by the Irish Medicines Board to supply adult stem cells for research on conditions such as arthritis and diabetes, as well as some heart conditions.

Dr Stephen Sullivan, chief scientific officer with the Irish Stem Cell Foundation, called it merely a "first step" and pointed out that all stem cell research is driven by the international pharmaceutical industry which will only engage with researchers in countries which have stem cell legislation in place. Ireland does not.

What he describes as "this legal vacuum" will, Dr Sullivan believes, mean that Ireland is sidelined in its capacity to contribute to research at an international level. He blames the Government, which promised legislation for stem cell research in the Programme for Government, but has yet to deliver. As might be expected, Sean Sherlock, the Minister for Innovation, denies that investment by the Health Research Board and Science Foundation Ireland, which will fund the first clinical trial of the adult stem cells harvested by the centre, will have limited value without legislation.

Mr Sherlock said that "there is absolutely no reason why Ireland (couldn't) be part of international stem cell research".

And Professor Tim O'Brien, director of the Centre for Cell Manufacturing Ireland, which is based in NUI Galway, says that lack of legislation will hamper "only" embryonic stem cell research, and not research with adult stem cells.

It may be true that research funds at the level required for the centre to make any kind of real contribution will not be forthcoming from outside the country without a proper legislative structure, as Dr Sullivan claims. Or the centre may, as Mr Sherlock claims, be able to trot along quite nicely as something to which politicians can point as proving that Ireland is in the forefront of seeking a scientific breakthrough in stem cell research.

Research, whether in the sciences or the humanities, is vital to the status of a university, so the Government undoubtedly has a stake in talking up what is going on in Galway. Medical research is supposed to have an end in sight: the cure and prevention of illness. It does not operate in an academic vacuum.

The Galway clinical trial of the stem cells harvested from adults' bone marrow will investigate the safety of using these cells for the treatment of critical limb ischemia. And there is nobody who could deny the value of this: the condition, a complication in diabetes, can lead to a limb having to be amputated.

But there are also other ends in sight for those involved in stem cell research: limiting, preventing, or even ultimately curing, as well as diabetes, the tragedy of Parkinson's disease, various forms of dementia, cancers, and the less devastating but nonetheless limiting and shatteringly painful condition of arthritis, are all on the list.

Which is why I would suggest that arguments about the significance of the licence fade into insignificance when put against the wider argument which is sedulously avoided by most medical/scientific authorities in Ireland. It is, not surprisingly, avoided by what we might call "political authorities" as well. The scientists can be excused: their duty is to their specialty. But it's noticeable Mr Sherlock didn't mention the word "embryo".

There is agreement that replacing damaged human cells by artificially grown cells has already proved its worth in a number of areas, particularly in cancer treatment. It is also agreed that embryo cells, ie, those "left over" after assisted fertility treatments, are effective in far more circumstances than those harvested from adult humans, and can be used in many more areas.

But once again the moral police have stepped in. Whether we regard them as the guardians of human dignity against exploitation that is against the natural law, or we regard them as irrational, brainwashed religious extremists (or any degree in between), they have succeeded in many countries, including our own, in preventing embryonic stem cell research, under the argument that the embryo is human life with a soul.

That argument is the one that matters. We need to know how the majority think since the argument is, at best, subjective, as are all cases argued on the basis of "natural law", a term used only when its proponents have no case in logic or science to support them.

In Ireland, such arguments are always in the shadow of religious teaching. That does not mean that hundreds of thousands of believing Christians, even believing Catholics, would not support embryonic stem cell research; it means merely that the more fundamentalist voices within their various faiths shout loudest.

Surely, if we give consent to having our bodies used after death for medical research, we should be permitted to allow our unused embryos to be used to advance medical science?

I have personal knowledge of people whose diabetes has lost them a leg in early mid-life and has destroyed life and career. I have friends cruelly stricken by Parkinson's disease. On a far lower level, I was diagnosed with spinal arthritis when I was 24. I am now what I describe as made of tin from the waist down and the shoulders up, and am profoundly grateful to medical science. Without medical science, I would be in a wheelchair and unable to use my arms, instead of living the normal life I do live. Admittedly I am in permanent pain, intensified threefold following an accident a year ago, but it's better than the alternative.

So I am undoubtedly prejudiced. But when I think about people with Parkinson's, diabetes, MS, Alzheimer's or cancer, I want to drag the smug campaigners opposed to embryonic stem cell research into the orthopaedic wards and the neurological wards. I want them to hear and see the hopeless misery their "principles" cause.

Irish Independent