British report on stem cell research puts European Union legislative cloning approach under pressure

London 22 August 2000The United Kingdom government's publication of a report on stem cell research has whipped up a debate on the ethics and morality of cloning once more, both in the United Kingdom and abroad. The Donaldson report, released by the British government this August, recommends that stem cell research should be permitted, including the research on human embryos, subject to strict legal controls and ethical considerations.


Stem cell research involves the isolation of a nucleus from a cell very early in its development, which is then cloned to produce similar cells for cell and tissue therapy. These cells can be grown into almost any tissue in the body, meaning that scientists could "grow" tissue-banks of cells for different parts of the human body, such as the skin or liver. These could be transplanted to patients with a much reduced risk of rejection. Equally, tissue grown from a person's own stem cells, would be a perfect match, with almost no risk of rejection at all. This has been dubbed "therapeutic cloning".

The report has been broadly welcomed by British researchers, and a number of the British Research Councils were quick to publish statements of their support. Professor Ray Baker, Chief Executive for the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) stated: "The Donaldson report recommendations will help us take forward the extensive fundamental stem cell research that the BBSRC has been funding for over ten years, and also strengthen the potential for using this science to underpin medical and health care research and improve the quality of life significantly." The BBSRC's long-standing stem cell biology research programme currently includes a GBP4.1 million or 2.5 million euro research portfolio.

Britain's Nuffield Council on Bioethics also welcomed the report which has conclusions in line with its own position, published in a discussion paper earlier this year. "We were very pleased to see that the Chief Medical Officer's Expert Group Report addressed important ethical issues, such as the need for specific consent by embryo donors to embryonic stem cell research", commented Dr. Sandy Thomas, director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

"For patients suffering from a wide range of currently incurable disorders, it offers the hope that new forms of therapies may be developed sooner rather than later", added the United Kingdom Genetic Interest Group. Alastair Kent, the Group's director continued, "It is impossible to predict which area of research will prove most fruitful. The consensus however is that two areas of research may be crucial. On embryonic stem cells, because they have the potential to be developed into the widest range of tissues; and on the way in which the egg reprogrammes a nucleus after cell nuclear replacement, for the reason that this may provide the key to the development of stem cells immunocompatible with the patient."

At the moment, stem cell research is banned under British law but, in the wake of the Donaldson report, the United Kingdom government has pledged to put legislation in place once and for all to clarify the current ban on reproductive cloning. "The pressure is building for politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to change the rules on embryo research", observed New Scientist, one of the UK's leading science magazines. The Donaldson report calls for changes in the law to allow both therapeutic cloning and research using the cloning technique pioneered by Scottish researchers with "Dolly the sheep" to treat certain inherited diseases. Cloning for reproductive purposes would stay banned.

The move has met with a negative response from a number of the European Union Member States. The German minister for health, Andrea Fisher, has warned against making "hasty decisions" and stressed the need to "weigh up the pros and cons of possible dangers", according to reports in the German press. In Italy, Patrizia Toia, minister for relations with Parliament described the latest developments in the UK as "very, very serious" and Italian MEP Antonio Tajani, called on the President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, to intervene.

Mrs. Noëlle Lenoir, Chair of the European Group on ethics, which advises the European Union on such matters and must publish its own opinion on the subject in November, told the French journal Liberation that "the British decision raises the problem of the use of the embryo on almost an industrial level." "Many things will be done under pressure from patients and industry but it is the function of the ethics group to highlight the risks involved in any progress", added Mrs. Lenoir. Meanwhile, Italian MEP Emma Bonino stood by the British Government. The proposed legislation would be "the best guarantee against the Far West in this field", she stated.

In the USA, stem cell research is only allowed in private laboratories, but Federal researchers are expecting to get the green light to harvest and work on stem cells soon as concern intensifies over private laboratories' growing monopoly of the science. The European Commission has been quick to clarify the UK's position. "Member States have the right to introduce such legislation", stated a Commission spokesperson, as the issue is not covered by any Community regulation. At the moment, the only related regulation is that of banning the patenting of the human genome. The European Group on Ethics and a high level forum on research and bio-sciences are expected to communicate their positions on therapeutic cloning to the Commission this November.

Leslie Versweyveld

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