Go-ahead for UCC stem cell research

UCC has become the only university in the Republic to officially endorse the use of embryonic stem cells in research. The controversial move was passed by a vote of 16 to 15.

UCC has become the only university in the Republic to officially endorse the use of embryonic stem cells in research. The controversial move was passed by a vote of 16 to 15.

The Governors of UCC last week voted in new legislation regarding the use of embryonic stem-cells in research at the university.

The motion, which called for guidelines on the acquisition of embryonic stem-cells required for research purposes, was passed by one vote. The new code of practice, endorsed by 16 votes to 15, effectively facilitates the use of embryonic stem-cells in research at University College Cork. This decision comes over a year after the Irish Council for Bioethics released a report supporting the carefully regulated use of embryos produced in in vitro fertilisation.

The new legislation means that UCC is now the only third-level institution in the Republic to clarify its endorsement of embryonic stem-cell research. The issue has been side-stepped by the Irish government for many years, and UCC’s decision was met by some dismay from members of the clergy and the Seanad.

However, Mr Michael Murphy, current President of UCC last week spoke in favour of the landmark code of practice. He referred to a number of high-profile scientific researchers at the university, who claim that stem-cell research is necessary to make advances in the field of understanding and treatment of degenerative diseases.

The Irish government has been slow to approve legislation regarding the use of embryonic stem-cells in research, despite endorsement of the practice by the Irish Council for Bioethics. This reluctance was effectively overcome last week when the board of governors at UCC passed their own code of practice.

The government’s hesitation on the issue is widely regarded as an opportunity for European legislation to circumvent national policy. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union carries guidelines on bio-ethics and the use of embryonic cells in research. Under this charter, research activities in member states should respect fundamental ethical principles.

Under UCC’s new guidelines every research project involving the use of stem-cell lines must be submitted to the University Research Ethics Board for ethical review before the start of the project. A subcommittee will then be established, including specialists in the area concerned, who will advise the board in relation to the scientific merit of the research aims of the proposed project.

According to the newly ratified policy, procedures used in and procurement of embryonic cells will be closely regulated.  Ethical concerns overseen include informed consent for recipients and donors, possible exploitation of duress on donors and bio safety issues.

The decision by UCC governors was not met with unanimous praise. Certain members of the clergy and the Seanad have staunchly opposed the new legislation. A heated debate erupted in the Seanad this week when Senator Jim Walsh of Fianna Fail likened the authorisation of embryonic stem-cell research to the flimsy defence of someone possessing child pornography.

Mr Walsh objected to the sanction of embryonic stem-cell research on the grounds that the embryo was destroyed prior to the removal of the stem-cell strips. The senator compared this defence to that of somebody found in possession of child pornography who claims that they are innocent of abuse as they only came into possession of it after the pornography had occurred. In retaliation, Senator Ivana Bacik described Mr Walsh’s comparison as “an appalling analogy”.

Further objection to UCC’s innovative decision came from Dr. Dermot Clifford, Archbishop of Cashel and Emly. Dr Clifford reasserted the concern of many Irish people when he reminded those on the governing board of UCC of the Fifth Commandment; “Thou shalt not kill”. For those that believe that human life begins at conception, destruction of embryos is akin to extinguishing life.

Embryonic stem-cell research was a contentious issue surrounding the Lisbon Referendum debate, because it conflicts with Christian values. Many attribute the lack of conclusive legislation on the issue as a cause for opposition to the proposed treaty. Addressing the Oireachtas this week, Cardinal Sean Brady warned of the lack of Christian vision in both the failed Nice Constitution and the Lisbon Reform Treaty.

In his first appearance at the Oireachtas, Cardinal Brady addressed the Oireachtas sub-committee on Ireland’s future in the European Union. He highlighted the growing concern among Christians at the position of the European Union on social issues and bio-ethics. Referring to the recently failed Lisbon referendum, he suggested that the Irish government should clarify its position and that of the EU with regard to issues of bio-ethics and embryonic stem-cell research.

Since his influential speech at the Humbert Summer School in Co Mayo last August, The Archbishop of Armagh has continued to assert the opinion that EU policy undermining Christian values and failure to clarify issues which may offend Christians, including stem-cell research, was possibly a decisive factor in the Irish people’s rejection of the Lisbon Treaty.

Those in favour of the new guidelines hailed them as a brave and realistic solution to an issue widely ignored by other governing bodies. Senator David Norris said that the UCC governors had done the honest, decent and courageous thing by passing the new code of practice. Speaking to Trinity News this week, Mr Norris described objections to it as an example of the “typical hypocrisy” that surrounds the issue. He praised the “courageous decision” of the UCC governors and said they acted properly in the absence of any affirmative action by the government.

He described the landmark vote as a reproach to legislators who haven’t already acted on the issue. When asked if he hoped to see a similar code of practice approved for research studies at TCD, he said it would be “useful” for Trinity officials to look at UCC’s new policy.

The Irish Council for Bioethics released a report on the use of embryonic stem-cells for research in April 2007. The ICB is an independent, national body set up by the Irish Government in 2002 to consider ethical issues raised by biological research and biomedicine, such as stem cell research. 

They surveyed the Irish public opinion on the issue and published their findings and recommendations in 2007. The report entitled “Ethical, Scientific and Legal Issues Concerning Stem Cell Research: Opinion”, highlighted the importance of human stem cell research for rapid advancements in the treatment of debilitating diseases and injuries.

Stem cell research is often the only promise of a breakthrough in treatment and cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and injuries such as those affecting the spinal cord. The ICB remarked on the astonishing rate at which developments are being made in these areas of research, and insisted that legal and ethical issues associated with the research be addressed.

While stem cells can successfully be extracted from adult donors, it is the issue of embryonic stem cells which causes the most concern and calls for decisive legislation. The ICB concluded that embryos should be granted significant moral status as opposed to full moral status.

The moral value that embryos possess is based on the recognition that they can develop into persons, as well as the value they derive from representing human life in its earliest stages.

The report goes on to state that the ICB supports the carefully regulated use of embryos produced but not used during in vitro fertilisation, that are otherwise destined to be destroyed for the purpose of embryonic stem cell research. In a decisive move, the ICB asserts that is does not object to the use of therapies or the importation of stem cells derived from embryos.

However it prefers that embryos already existing due to in vitro fertilisation be used as opposed to the creation of embryos specifically for research purposes.

Dr Siobhán O’Sullivan, Scientific Director of the ICB said, “Ireland has no specific legislation relating to assisted human reproduction or embryo research. Failure to provide a comprehensive regulatory system to govern stem cell research and its application undermines the moral value of the human embryo.” 

In the absence of critical legislation in Ireland, the board of UCC has paved the way for stem cell research at the university and the possibility of advancements in the treatment of degenerative diseases and spinal cord injuries.