Absence of rules on stem-cell research misleading

 

THE ABSENCE of guidelines on stem-cell research in Ireland is driving patients to seek quack “cures” overseas, according to a leading scientist.

Consultant neurologist Prof Orla Hardiman said people with incurable diseases were spending large sums of money on stem-cell treatments overseas when there was no evidence they would deliver any benefit.

This was happening because people were not well-informed about the limitations of stem-cell therapy, due to an information vacuum about the science.

“We need a debate so that people can select out the information that is correct and validated scientifically from information that is being used in an incredibly exploitative way for vulnerable people who have a disability that isn’t currently curable,” she said.

Prof Hardiman was speaking at a press conference yesterday organised by a group of independent senators and scientists calling for the introduction of guidelines for embryonic stem-cell research.

Most scientists want the Government to introduce such ethical guidelines, which were recommended in a number of recent high-level reports.

However, opponents are seeking a ban because human embryos are destroyed in collecting the cells. UCC last year became the first Irish college to allow the use of embryonic stem cells for research purposes.

Senators David Norris and Ivana Bacik said Ireland needed legislation to regulate embryonic stem-cell research, which offered immense potential for treating neuro-degenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

Criticising the lack of political leadership on the issue, Mr Norris said the health and welfare of Irish citizens could not be allowed to suffer simply because of the harsh economic climate.

The embryos used to produce stem cells had the potential to become human but were not human, he argued, and rather than destroying them, they should be used as a resource. “Nobody takes an embryo to the zoo or the cinema or the church. Let’s be real about this.”

Prof Bacik said a ban on any form of stem-cell research would send out the wrong message internationally in relation to Ireland’s scientific reputation.

The Department of Health said it was engaged in “complex preliminary work” prior to drawing up legislation in the area.

Dr Gavin Davey of the neuroscience institute in TCD said it was very important that Ireland did not miss out on the research drive to unravel the mechanisms that cause conditions such as Parkinson’s. The potential for creating new drugs using stem-cell techniques was enormous.

According to Prof Hardiman, scores of Irish patients go overseas seeking stem-cell therapy every year. “I’ve never seen a clinical effect, and neither have my international colleagues . . . That’s not to say there won’t be in the future, but it’s premature.”

Referring to the case of eight-month-old Gretta Kieran Cullen, who is travelling to Beijing next week with her parents for stem-cell treatment for an optical disorder, she said the benefits of such treatment were very doubtful.

Mr Norris admitted he had a vested interest in the issue, as he suffers from a mild form of macular degeneration.

This condition was untreatable at the moment but he said new forms of stem-cell treatment could change that.