Thursday March 29
2:28 PM EST
By STEPHEN THORNE
OTTAWA (CP) - Canada should allow the use of human embryos for stem cell research but human cloning should remain off limits, says a draft report by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
The discussion paper, prepared by a 10-member panel and released Thursday, says stem cell research holds "enormous promise," but research is needed to determine whether adult or embryonic stem cells offer better prospects. It adds that cloning or creating human embryos for stem cell research should not be allowed.
"We're recommending a continued moratorium on human cloning, including cloning solely for the purposes of deriving stem cell lines," said the group's chair, Dr. Janet Rossant, a Toronto geneticist and microbiologist.
"We're also proposing a moratorium on research which involves combining human embryonic stem cells with early animal embryos or vice versa."
Stem cells are immature cells that have the ability to either develop into a variety of human tissues or organs and to renew themselves. Embryonic stem cells are the most flexible - and most controversial - because they can develop into any type of cell in the body.
Such cells could provide hope for organ replacement and cures to degenerative diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis and heart disease.
"The potential of stem cells is quite clearly thrilling," said Elizabeth Hurdman of the Foundation for Fighting Blindness. "The number of individuals who could regain their sight is really quite staggering."
But the Campaign Life Coalition called Thursday's proposals "upsetting."
"They want permission to use human babies for research purposes," said Mary Ellen Douglas, the group's national organizer. "They've opened a whole Pandora's box."
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which hands out about $400 million in federal operating grants each year, plans to weigh public opinion on the working paper before establishing firm guidelines, probably by fall.
There is currently no law governing stem cell research in Canada, though the federal government is expected to introduce draft legislation this spring.
The guidelines recommended Thursday would apply to researchers funded by the institutes and reflect broader guidelines that already exist governing ethical conduct for research involving humans.
Council members said they hope the guidelines, once established, will be adopted by the private sector.
"This discussion paper and, indeed, this entire process has arisen because we know that stem cells and related research have enormous potential," said Rossant.
"The question is whether the benefits outweigh the controversial aspects of using early embryos of this sort."
Dr. Francoise Baylis, a medical ethicist from Dalhousie University and a panel member, acknowledged the issue is divisive.
While some, like Douglas, consider the embryo a person from the moment of conception deserving of the same rights as human beings, others say it is nothing more than a group of cells with the same rights afforded other living cells.
The debate and lack of clear guidelines has discouraged Canadian scientists from embarking on stem cell research. Britain and the United States have developed policies on the practice and varying legislation is being developed in Japan, France and the Netherlands.
The working group recommends the embryo have special status as a "potential person," Baylis said.
"From that point of view, the human embryo does not have the same moral status as a person and does not enjoy the absolute right to life."
Other ethical issues involve privacy, consent, payment and the potential for commodification of women and human life, as well as broader issues of commercialization and patenting.
The 28-page paper addresses some of the issues generally, but calls for direction from interested parties. It also recommends creation of a national assessment group to conduct ethical reviews of all stem cell research.
The working paper and an opportunity for comment are available on the Canadian Institutes for Health Research Web site at www.cihr.ca.