Mar 04, 2002
By Randall Palmer
Canada will tread a middle path between the more restrictive approach of the United States and the liberal laws of Britain with new rules unveiled on Monday to govern the use of stem cells in medical research.
Under the proposed regulations, drafted by the federally funded Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), the country's premier health research agency, Canadian scientists will be allowed public funding to conduct research using stem cells from embryos and aborted fetuses, but will not be allowed to conduct human cloning.
"The weight of the scientific evidence is that embryonic stem cells at the moment at least, from what we know, hold the greatest promise and potential," CIHR president Alan Bernstein said.
The rules ban federal funding for research leading to cloning or research that involves the creation of embryos just for scientific study. But they would allow embryos left over from fertility clinics to be used for stem-cell research.
Stem cells have the ability to transform themselves into many other types of cells, offering the potential of regenerating damaged organs or tissue.
Many scientists believe stem cells offer hope for treating brain maladies such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, as well as diabetes, cancer, heart attacks and spinal injuries.
But many policymakers advocate the use of stem cells taken from adults, so as to avoid the kind of divisive controversy that surrounds the use of cells from embryos.
In August, US President Bush allowed federally funded research on embryonic stem cells but only on cells from embryos that have already been destroyed.
In Britain, the government has allowed both the creation and cloning of embryos for stem-cell research.
Canada's House of Commons health committee said in December research using embryos should be done only as a last resort. But the regulations issued on Monday make no such distinction, allowing embryonic research as a matter of course.
"The committee was not persuaded by the perspective that (an embryo) is a human being with an inalienable right to life," Francoise Baylis, a member of the committee that came up with the regulations, told a news conference.
The official opposition in Parliament, the right-wing Canadian Alliance, voiced outrage that these regulations were being determined before Liberal Health Minister Anne McLellan puts forward legislation governing not just publicly funded research but human-reproduction questions overall.
"Today's announcement by the CIHR circumvents the parliamentary process," the Alliance's Rob Merrifield said.
"It's the slipperiest thing I've ever seen as far as bringing forward legislation (is concerned). I think Anne McLellan sent the research scientists out to do her dirty work."
McLellan told reporters the legislation, which she plans to introduce by May 10, would largely mirror the new regulations.
"It would be fair to say that at least much of that which you find in the guidelines will in some fashion be reflected in legislation ultimately passed by this government," she said.
However, an early government draft of the bill did not deal with research on cells from fetuses, now allowed under the CIHR rules.
Maureen McTeer, a lawyer who has written a book on ethical issues such as embryonic research, said embryos should be protected, just as a severely handicapped child is protected from being killed to harvest his or her organs.
"We do that for a purpose because ... we believe that human life is important and that it has to be protected, and that the vulnerable among us need to be protected," said McTeer, the wife of Conservative Party leader Joe Clark.
"Embryonic life deliberately created in the lab is valuable as human life. It doesn't have to be a person with legal rights in order for us to know that it is vulnerable and in need of some protection."
Four big medical charities, including the Canadian Cancer Society and the Muscular Dystrophy Association, registered support for the regulations and for embryonic research.
The Canadian Cancer Society said
human embryonic stem cells may be more effective, for example, in restoring
the immune systems of patients undergoing bone-marrow transplantation.
Copyright © 2002 Reuters Limited