Public lecture will examine the challenges around stem cell research

30 July 2008

Professor Andrew Webster
Professor Andrew Webster

When it comes to the stem cell debate, it seems everyone has an opinion. Professor Andrew Webster, a leading UK sociologist, explains why the social sciences get to have their say, too.

Three years ago the UK government set up its Stem Cell Initiative, setting aside £50m to keep Britain at the forefront of stem cell research.

The money was divided between six major funding research councils. In a "pleasantly surprising" decision, the social sciences scored £3.5m. The national co-ordinator of the Economic and Social Research Council Social Science Stem Cell Initiative is Professor Andrew Webster. He calls the decision "a reflection of the fact that the government of the time recognised that there were not only ethical and moral issues" surrounding the stem cell debate.

"Sociologists look at how political systems seek to oversee and govern these types of developments, how regulators on the ground cope with these new challenges, how clinicians and patient advocacy groups regard them, and how the lay public responds," he says.

Professor Andrew Webster is also director of the Science and Technology Studies Unit (SATSU) and Head of Department of Sociology at the University of York in the UK. He will present a public lecture at the University of Sydney on 7 August.

While many scientists tout that stem cell research will lead to promising advances in treating spinal cord injuries and diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, Professor Webster says we need to confront many challenges before such technologies can be introduced.

Those challenges include scientists actually "getting stem cells to do what they are supposed to do".

"So the challenge for science is to make it work. The challenge for regulators, who are a crucial part of the jigsaw, is to get the balance right between regulation, risk and fostering the science.

"And the challenge for the public," he says, "Is deciding exactly what they are willing to accept."

In Australia, we have moved from banning human cloning, but legalising embryonic stem cell research, to lifting the ban on therapeutic cloning. Next, we will have to confront the issue of animal-human hybrids.

"At every turn there will be another challenge regulators have to face," says Professor Webster.

For clinicians, it's the possible safety risks in the long term. If you take a drug that has an adverse effect you can stop taking it. If you implant a stem cell, you can't 'disimplant' it.

"Imagine a stem cell has been implanted in the eye. It's not inconceivable that could distribute itself beyond the eye and into the rest of the body. Might it become carcinogenic? Some type of bio-vigilant, long-term monitoring would be required. Clinicians are worried they could be creating new problems that can't be managed easily," he says.

He also worries that when big pharmaceutical companies finally begin to move into this area they will seek to use existing regulatory measures for approval of products. "If they do this may well cause longer-term problems because the world of biological tissue is very different to the world of chemicals."

"If they do they will be making a mistake because the world of biological tissue is very different to the world of chemicals."

The public is so used to hearing about the miracles we can expect to eventuate from stem cell research, versus the morality and ethics of this type of research it's no wonder "they have mixed views," Professor Webster says.

Contact: Claudia Liu

Phone: 02 9351 3191