Limited permission for stem cell research in Republic

Muted cheers for University College Cork’s decision to allow limited stem cell research – but…..

It has blocked the harvesting of stem cells directly from embryos created for the purpose or from surplus embryos arising as a result of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatments

Isn’t it hypocritical only to allow research on ” lines from abroad?” Yet even this is remarkable given the absence of rational debate beyond the odd piece in the Irish Times. Ireland still lags far behind the UK in this vital area.It’s worth explaining what hybrids embryos actually are, to deal with the religious and perhaps instinctive recoil from the idea.

The fourth type of hybrid, the kind being developed in British universities, is called cytoplasmic. It is created by transferring the nuclei of human cells, such as skin cells, into animal eggs from which almost all the genetic information has been removed. The resulting embryo would contain only a tiny amount of animal DNA – around 0.1% – and the rest would be human. The embryo would be grown in a lab to a size of around 200 cells.
Why create human-animal embryos?

Scientists developing these embryos say they will provide a plentiful source of stem cells – immature cells that can develop into many different types of tissue – for use in medical research. Researchers believe that, by producing stem cells carrying the genetic defects of diseases, they will be able to work out how a cell’s molecular machinery goes awry and perhaps find new cures for diseases.

The research has been hampered by the severe shortage of “spare” human eggs donated by couples undergoing fertility treatment.

Lisa Jardine a professor of the history of science and ideas and the new chair of the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Authority, gave this fascinating account of her ethical approach. On MPs and others taking part in the recent debate:

“Once it had been explained, she believes, only those dogmatically opposed thought hybrid embryos were scary Frankenstein monsters.”

On the Churches:

“..the Catholic church had become a block to medical progress… She has pondered this long and hard. “We have this one fatal impediment, which is the late 20th-century Catholic church’s commitment to fertilisation of the egg as being the moment of humanity. Now that wasn’t true in the 19th century – the Catholic church did not believe that then. St Augustine, who I greatly revere as a great father of the church, believed that the child became human when it kicked in the womb, so that would be 19 weeks.”

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London