Stem cell research is among the most exciting but also most controversial areas of science today. It was in the news again last week because of proposals by British scientists to make stem cells from embryos created by implanting the genes from a human cell into the egg of a rabbit, cow or goat.
Initially it appeared that the government was planning to block such research, leading to claims that ministers were being swayed by pressure from religious groups.
Subsequently the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the regulatory body that oversees such studies, has said that the work may be allowed to proceed, but only after substantial public debate and consultation.
A clash appears to be looming between those who believe such research is dangerous and immoral and scientists who say it is vital for developing treatments for conditions such as diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.
It is not surprising that many people feel uneasy when they see headlines such as the Daily Mail’s “Scientists To Create Frankenbunny”, conjuring up images of Frank, the malevolent six foot rabbit in the film Donnie Darko.
In fact the truth is somewhat less dramatic. What scientists want to do is create a special type of stem cell that can grow into any tissue in the body. This could be used to regenerate tissues that are damaged or diseased in conditions like spinal cord injury, heart disease or diabetes.
Such research could also be useful for the scientific study of these conditions and the search for new drugs to treat them.
Up till now such stem cells have been obtained from “spare” embryos created during infertility treatment that would otherwise be destroyed.
These embryos are at a very early stage of development – they are a ball of cells no bigger than a pinhead. This has not stopped the religious right in countries like the US severely restricting their use in publicly funded research.
Recently scientists have been seeking to create stem cells that are tissue matched to a particular human individual. This is seen as important for two main reasons. Firstly it would solve the problem of tissue rejection.
Tissues created with stem cells obtained from spare embryos would be rejected by most people’s immune systems. But creating stem cells derived from the patient’s own body would get around such problems.
Secondly, stem cells created from an individual who suffered from a particular disease, for instance diabetes or some disorder of the heart or nervous system, could be used to study the disease.
To make tissue matched stem cells scientists have turned to the same cloning techniques used to create Dolly the sheep.
By taking the genetic information from a cell of a particular human individual and transplanting this into a human egg whose own genes have been removed, a cloned embryo could be created. This could be used to generate stem cells with an almost identical genetic make-up to that individual.
A Korean research group claimed to have created stem cells from cloned human embryos but subsequently turned out to have faked their results (see Socialist Review, February 2006).
A central problem faced by any scientist hoping to succeed where the Koreans failed is the difficulty of obtaining human eggs. It is this that has led some researchers to consider using animal eggs instead, since the egg is essentially just a vessel for carrying the genetic information of the donor individual.
There are many unknown factors here. One is that the animal egg possesses a small amount of its own genetic information contained in the mitochondria, tiny sub-cellular particles that provide the energy needs of the cell but also carry their own genes.
There may also be subtle differences in the chemical composition of animal eggs that will influence the pattern of embryo development.
So what should be the response of socialists to such research? Stem cell therapy certainly has the potential to cure a vast range of diseases that currently cause misery to millions around the world.
Studying the biology of stem cells could also lead to a better understanding of cancer. The generation of human-animal hybrid embryos seems to me to have lots to offer in terms of furthering our understanding of stem cells and their potential therapeutic uses, however speculative its chances of success.
On the other hand were such cells ever to be used therapeutically, there would need to be a very rigorous survey of the possible safety implications.
The current debate over stem cells provides a very good illustration of the contradictions inherent within capitalism. On the one hand it is capable of generating amazing new technologies.
However, the amount of money flowing into stem cell research is still miniscule compared to that being used for developing new ways to kill people.
A recent report concluded that while stem cell research was pioneered in this country, lack of funding was compromising the ability of British scientists to keep things moving forward in this area.
Meanwhile, as the leader of the richest country on earth talks about the sanctity of a ball of cells, in Iraq the most sophisticated weapon systems are being used to murder real, living human beings.
John Parrington is a scientist and lecturer at the University of Oxford. One of his main research interests is the study of fertilisation and embryo development.