UCC debate to fuel calls for national stem cell policy


THE DEBATE today among members of the governing body of University College Cork about whether or not to allow the use of embryonic stem cells for research purposes in the college is likely to again fuel calls for a national policy on the issue.

Ireland has no legislation prohibiting the use of embryos for research but the Medical Council's ethical guidelines specifically prevent doctors from destroying human embryos for research.

There were two reports in recent years from groups funded by the State or established by Government to look at this and other issues. Both came down in favour of allowing the research to proceed in certain circumstances.

Earlier this year a report from the Irish Council for Bioethics, an independent State-funded body, said legislation should be provided for embryonic stem cell research, but only under the strict condition of "informed consent" from embryo donors.

This echoed the 2005 report from the Government appointed Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction, which recommended that "embryo research, including embryonic stem cell research, for specific purposes only and under stringently controlled conditions, should be permitted on surplus embryos that are donated specifically for research".

However, no regulations have been devised by any Government department for this controversial area. Scientists say stem cells could bring enormous therapeutic possibilities for treating conditions such as Parkinson's disease.

Prof Frank Barry, scientific director of NUI Galway's Regenerative Medicine Institute (Remedi), said yesterday he would be very supportive of an initiative like that being considered today by the UCC governing body.

"The importance of embryonic stem cells is such that we can't keep on ignoring this research in Ireland so it would seem to me to be an enlightened and progressive step to take," he said.

Research at Remedi so far has focused on adult stem cells but Prof Barry said NUIG would certainly have an interest in looking at human embryonic stem cells in the context of its own research.

"I feel we should have a national policy on this rather than individual universities or organisations having to make up their own minds," he said.

But there are opposing views from the Catholic Church and others. Prof William Binchy of Trinity College Dublin's school of law said he believed it would be most unfortunate if UCC were to come to a decision "to engage in research involving the termination of the lives of human beings".

Scientists believe stem cells have the potential to cure many intractable diseases, but their use for research raises powerful ethical questions. Embryonic stem cells arise naturally in a growing human embryo but collecting them for research necessarily requires the destruction of the embryo. Stem cells have also successfully been collected from adult tissues, but these so-called adult stem cells are considered less useful by many researchers.

The discussions at UCC today will focus on its use of cultured embryonic stem cells. These are cells grown in the lab, but they would originally have come from an embryo.