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The ethical dilemma of stem-cell research

Marisa Jaconi leads the country's only stem cell research project

As voters decide whether to allow research on stem cells from surplus human embryos, a leading Swiss biologist says the need outweighs moral concerns.

Marisa Jaconi, the first Swiss researcher with a mandate to study human embryonic stem cells in Switzerland, told swissinfo that the potential medical benefits cannot be ignored.

Research on stem cells taken from human embryos is highly controversial. In the United States, it was an issue in the presidential election campaign, while in Switzerland new legislation will be the subject of a nationwide vote next Sunday.

Jaconi is one of the rising stars of Swiss scientific research and was granted permission three years ago to import human embryonic stem cells from the United States.

swissinfo: You are the only person in Switzerland doing research on human embryonic stem cells. Are you surprised by the level of debate surrounding this issue?

M.J.: The subject has given rise to heated debate all over the world. It raises fundamental questions: Who are we? What is an embryo? When does life begin? It forces people to examine their own beliefs and assumptions.

There is something paradoxical in all this. We worry about what may or may not be done with an embryo when it is a little ball of immature cells, yet we live in a society that permits abortion and the intrauterine device or IUD.

It is important that we discuss these things, taking different points of view into account. This is the only way our society will gain a better understanding of the issues involved.

swissinfo: Taking cells from an embryo means destroying it. Does this not present you with a moral problem?

M.J.: We all have to ask ourselves moral questions about what we do. It is right that the embryo be protected, but I do not think it can be accorded the same status as a human baby. Though the embryo in its very early stages – when research on it is legally permitted – has the inherent potential for development, it does not yet have certain structures, organs, the beginnings of a nervous system.

I would also add that we are not seeking permission to create embryos for research purposes, which is clearly outlawed – and rightly so. The law simply allows scientific researchers to take cells from embryos originally created for infertility treatments which are no longer needed for implantation.

At present, the law stipulates that these embryos should be discarded. But what is really more ethical: destroying them, or using them to discover new ways of treating disease? To my mind, it is obviously better that they be donated for stem-cell research than thrown in the dustbin. Rather than see them destroyed, I would also be in favour of giving them to other infertile couples for adoption, always provided of course that it was with the natural parents’ consent. Unfortunately, the constitution excludes this possibility and requires that surplus embryos be destroyed.

swissinfo: Stem cells have also been found in adults and in the umbilical cord. Why not focus your efforts on these?

M.J.: The only therapy currently available using adult stem cells is the transplantation of bone marrow for treating leukaemia. We do not yet know how to reprogramme adult stem cells so as to obtain all the other types of cell. The only way we shall learn how to do this is by studying embryonic stem cells. It is therefore important to continue to study all types of stem cell, from both adults and embryos.

Only time and research will tell us if stem cells can be used for therapeutic purposes. There are hopes that this will prove to be the case, and it is right that the matter be discussed. It is the only way to make people understand the reasons for carrying out research which has triggered a worldwide ethical debate.

We cannot establish the areas in which these cells will have therapeutic applications without first studying them. We have to be careful not to raise false hopes. But, at the same time, we need to be able to go ahead with basic research.

swissinfo: Some people fear that permitting research on embryos may have undesirable and dangerous consequences, such as new forms of eugenics or human cloning…

M.J.: I do not see any danger of abuses of this kind occurring in Switzerland. The new law is very restrictive and does not open the door to cloning in any shape or form, not even therapeutic cloning. The manipulation of embryos is absolutely forbidden.

Of course, the law can be broken, but this is true in any area of activity. I think it would be absurd to prohibit research on the grounds that someone might misuse the techniques that had been developed. The important thing is to have a clear legal framework, so that anyone who does break the law can be dealt with severely.

swissinfo-interview: Doris Lucini

From Lugano, Marisa Jaconi is a researcher at the Biology of Ageing Laboratory at Geneva University.
In 2001 she was granted permission to import human embryonic stem cells from the US.
The first scientist to isolate these cells in a lab was American James Thomson in 1998.
On Sunday November 28, the Swiss will vote on a law to regulate stem cell research.

Embryonic stem cells can multiply while maintaining their potential to develop into a wide variety of tissue types (bone, heart muscle and nerve).

Marisa Jaconi leads the only Swiss research project working with stem cells from human embryos.

Part of an international network, her team is applying for a contract to work with human embryonic stem cells in the EU.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR