Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Is the End Coming for Embryonic Stem Cells?

By Michael Cook

Embryonic stem cell research is looking increasingly like a dead end as clinical trials are cancelled in favour of adult stem cells.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge, an internet newsletter about bioethics.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Remember the saying “ethics is playing catch-up with science”? It was one of the trusty clichés of Australian science journalists in the lead-up to a heated debate in Federal Parliament in 2005 over embryo research, therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem cells.

From a layman’s point of view, the nub of the issue was that adult stem cells were ethically acceptable but multipotent, while embryonic stem cells were ethically contentious but pluripotent. Why use a pen knife when you had a Swiss Army knife?

So much was at stake, not only here but in the US and Europe. In California, voters passed an amendment to the state’s constitution to fund research with human embryonic stem cells and to create the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). They knew that this was going to cost them at least US$3 billion, but it was worthwhile because these cells would lead to treatments for incurable and devastating diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, blindness, HIV/AIDS, mental health disorders, multiple sclerosis and Huntington’s disease. When push came to shove, the ethics had to change.

At the time, the scientific case for allowing “therapeutic cloning” and research on human embryos was overwhelming. Many politicians and voters had qualms about the commodification of human life that this...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.