Canadian researchers tire of waiting for stem cell legislation, plan to proceed with embryo research
June 25, 2003
By Ed Ungar
Canada's primary funding agency for medical research is calling for the passage of parliamentary bill C-13, a law regulating in vitro fertilization (IVF) and embryonic stem cell research. If Parliament fails to act, Canadian researchers plan to go ahead with embryonic stem cell research by the late fall.
"Please pass this legislation," Alan Bernstein, president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), has exhorted repeatedly. But Parliament has recessed for the summer without final passage.
So, Bernstein has given the go-ahead to the formation of an embryonic stem cell research oversight committee to ensure that all projects conform to guidelines set forth in 2001 by an ad hoc CIHR committee on stem cell research. This month, CIHR began contacting prospective nominees for the oversight committee.
"I have no basis for withholding funding other than it's against the law," Bernstein told The Scientist, "but there is no law."
Last week, Canada's Stem Cell Network, a government-funded nationwide association of 65 stem cell researchers, announced that it had run out of patience after waiting 3 years for legislation to pass. "If we didn't believe this was worthwhile science that will benefit mankind, we wouldn't be doing this at all," said Ron Worton, the network's scientific director. "If we believe it is worthwhile doing, we should be doing it as soon as we can and not waiting unnecessarily."
The network has had funding for such research projects for years but has been awaiting the go-ahead from the CIHR oversight committee. The Stem Cell Network is asking for approval of two multicenter, multiinvestigator projects. The first would use existing stem cells to study differentiation and gene expression to better understand how they might be regulated.
The second project would derive new stem cells lines from discarded embryos "to test out some of the current procedures and make sure that we're able to do it," according to Worton. Both projects, he said, would conform to CIHR guidelines and the proposed legislation.
Under the guidelines, stem cell lines could be derived from spare in vitro embryos as long as the researcher obtained permission from both gamete donors as well as any nongamete donor "parents," such as the IVF clients who had the embryos created from donor gametes. If a researcher failed to obtain permission from all parties, the spare embryos would be thrown out, as is the current practice. Reproductive cloning would be banned.
The bill before parliament has incorporated the CIHR guidelines almost without amendment. However, it would mandate criminal penalties of 5 to 10 years in prison for any researcher determined to be in violation of the law.
Parliamentary observers believe anti-abortion MPs within the governing Liberal party have been waging a successful behind-the-scenes legislative battle to delay passage of the bill. But in the absence of legislation, the only policy regulating stem cell research would be the CIHR guidelines, and they would only apply to publicly funded projects.
Public opinion polling has consistently shown 60 to 70% support for unrestricted stem cell research, including "therapeutic" cloning, according to Timothy Caulfied, research director of the University of Alberta's Health Law Institute. Even when Canada's Raelian cult was making headlines with claims of a human clone, therapeutic cloning still had majority backing, said Caulfield. "Canadians can distinguish between reproductive and therapeutic cloning," he added, "I wish the government could."
"If Parliament says we're not going to touch this, we could, by a fair
and open process a year from now, a week from now, or three years from
now, revisit the guidelines," said Bernstein. But his first preference
is to have a law passed by the late fall. "It's more important to have
something passed by Parliament than nothing," he said.
Copyright ©2003, The Scientist Inc.