Stem cell research: a cautionary tale from California

8 September 2006

In 2004, the people of California voted "yes" on one of the most controversial ballots in the state's history - to establish a constitutional right to conduct human embryonic stem cell research (hESC), and to devote $US 3 billion towards it.

But the benefits of biotechnology were sold to the public in such a way that thousands of Californians are now expecting miracle cures that simply won't eventuate, according to researcher Tamra Lysaght from the Faculty of Science.

As the Australian Government prepares for a discussion of the issue in Parliament next month, Ms Lysaght said the Californian general election ballot had been a cautionary experience.

"Many politicians, scientists, capital investors, and other interested parties who spoke out did not declare their interests - to attract international prestige, to secure patents, to build business. None of this has anything to do with relieving people's suffering," argues Ms Lysaght, whose doctoral research is being taken under the auspices of an Australian Stem Cell Centre Premier Scholarship.

People were told, for instance, that stem cell research would produce a cure for Alzheimer's, "but that's a whole-brain disease. We're not going to grow new brains," she says.

Ms Lysaght has a unique dual expertise which covers international scientific developments in stem cell technology as well as the ways in which debates about the research play out in the public domain. With an undergraduate degree in biotechnology, her current work identifies and classifies the issues and arguments that arise in print media around hESC.

She has completed a study on California and is now turning her attention to Australia - a timely move as the Federal Government is expected to have an open debate next month to consider the recommendations in the Lockhart Report, the outcome of the federally funded review of Australia's legislation governing stem cell research.

"The dispute over whether adult stem cells are more useful than embryonic stem cells is a scientific question we cannot yet answer. Many people are using the authority of science to support their moral positions. However, they are not declaring those positions," she argues.

In California, Ms Lysaght interviewed an adult-stem-cell researcher who had taken up a chair of ethics position at a university. "He makes claims about the usefulness of adult stem cells over embryonic stem cells, but he doesn't make transparent his Christian background or how his research interests might inform his teaching in ethics," she says.

According to Ms Lysaght, the stem cell debate has focussed so heavily on the moral status of the embryo that this has come at the expense of other equally if not more important issues.

"The problem with the embryo debate is that it is irresolvable. We've been arguing about it for thousands of years and we'll continue for thousands more. More than 2000 years ago, philosophers like Plato asked these very questions: when does life begin? What does it mean to be human?"

Rather than talking about restricting scientific research - "which is impossible since we don't have the infrastructure to police it" - we should consider what restrictions we should place on the technology, she says. "For example, I'd support prohibitions on using embryonic stem cell technology for cosmetic purposes."

My Lysaght is also concerned that no-one is talking about the women involved, the women who are supposed to donate their eggs. "Their interests are not being recognised. Should they be paid? If they are to be 'compensated' for their 'time and effort', does this mean that the eggs of professional working women will be more expensive than those of university students?"

We need strict regulatory controls over this technology, "but at the moment we can't get past the issue of the embryo," she says.

Ms Lysaght's work is published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, an international, peer reviewed publication co-edited by Dr Chris Jordens from the University's Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine.

The journal includes articles by Sydney University contributors Dr Rachel Ankeny and Dr Sue Dodds. Dr Ankeny and Associate Professor Ian Kerridge - also from Sydney - are on the editorial board.

Contact: Kate Rossmanith

Email: 1414581f3d5e17092a5c5d0b54383b100d77372a3e4d230c