A new law being prepared in Switzerland is seeking to clear up the grey areas surrounding research into stem cells taken from human embryos. Researchers believe the current lack of clarity has held Switzerland back in what promises to be one of the most fertile fields for medical study in the coming years.
It is believed that stem cell research could one day provide an effective treatment for strokes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, diabetes and other conditions, as well as being an alternative to organ transplants.
Human stem cells are particularly interesting to researchers because they are undifferentiated, which means they have the potential to become virtually any cell in the body. They also have the ability to proliferate indefinitely in culture, thus providing an unlimited source of healthy cells.
However, many people object to this harvesting of cells from embryos, as they fear it could open the way to full-scale human cloning. It is also believed that using embryos is unnecessary, as stem cells can be obtained from adult bone marrow and umbilical cords.
Currently, Switzerland has among the most stringent laws in the world on research into human embryos, but these relate principally to fertilisation and reproduction, and were drawn before the concept of stem cell research was thought of.
Stem cells from mice
The debate in Switzerland was effectively triggered by the request of two Geneva biologists, Marisa Jaconi and Karl-Heinz Krause, for a grant to import human embryo stem cells from the United States, to build on the research they had already carried out on stem cells from mice.
"We are only just beginning to know how these cells work, and we wanted to compare how human embryo stem cells grow in comparison to the mice cells, with which we have become quite familiar," says Jaconi, a researcher into the biology of ageing at Geneva's University Hospital, who has been studying how stem cells can treat heart disease.
"It was our intention to push Switzerland into taking a decision in this field," says Jaconi.
Despite receiving positive ethical and legal reviews, the National Scientific Research Foundation, to whom Jaconi and Krause had submitted their request, decided to wait before making a final decision.
"There's no law that forbids the importation of stem cells," says Gérard Escher, a scientific advisor to the Secretary of State for Science, Charles Kleiber. "But, for the Foundation, it would have sent a wrong signal. It was not in keeping with the spirit of the law."
The Foundation will now refer the matter to a new National Commission for Medical Ethics, created as part of the law on medically assisted procreation, which came into force in January.
However, Escher says that in an ideal world, these thorny issues would be clearly dealt with by legislation, but the Swiss constitution is, at present, anything but clear. For this reason, Kleiber has decided to prepare a new law.
Currently, there are no fewer than seven separate articles in the constitution that touch on specific issues relating to research on human beings. The intention is to bring them together and make one unambiguous law covering this area.
"This would clear up the grey areas that currently exist. It would protect the dignity of the patient - or the human subject of research - while allowing researchers a clearer framework in which to do their job," Escher told swissinfo.
The anomalies that exist in the Swiss law are frustrating for researchers like Jaconi. For example, she can legally use cells from aborted foetuses, but not from surplus test-tube embryos.
"For me, the use of aborted foetuses is much more problematic," she told swissinfo.
Escher concedes that Switzerland has been slower than many other countries in reacting to advances in this field, but that is largely because it is a country of consensus, where the process of consultation takes much longer.
Nevertheless, other countries have stolen a march on the Swiss. Britain now allows medical research into stem cells from human embryos, while other countries - the United States, Israel and Australia, for example - are leading producers of these cells.
Now the Swiss are addressing the issue, although what form the future law will take is still not certain. Drs Krause and Jaconi are due to meet the working party drawing up the legislation at the end of August.
"We will tell them that we would like these cells produced in Switzerland - to generate them from donated embryos under tightly controlled conditions," Jaconi says. "Failing that, we would like to have access to stem cells that have already been produced in other countries."
To ensure that such work is ethical, she and Krause believe two important conditions must be met. The embryos must be produced solely for that purpose and that the donor parents must give their consent.
"If the new law restricts work with these cells, then clearly many researchers will decide to do this work abroad," Jaconi says.
by Roy Probert