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Top medical body supports research on surplus embryos

Stem cell research holds great promise, but has also generated controversy

(Keystone Archive)

The Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences has given its approval to research into stem cells taken from surplus human embryos.

In its latest guidelines, the Academy's ethics committee has endorsed research on human embryos, produced by in vitro fertilisation. However, the organisation opposes the synthesis of embryos purely for research purposes, as well as therapeutic cloning.

Human embryonic stem cell research is one of the most contentious areas of scientific investigation. It allows scientists to develop human tissues with huge potential benefits for health. Opponents, however, allege that man is playing God.

"There is an ethical dilemma," said the Academy's secretary general, Dr Margrit Leuthold. "But we think it is justified to use embryos which would otherwise be discarded. If there is no potential for a human life to come out of these embryos, we think it is ethically justified to use them."

Are proposals adequate?

For many scientists, who are directly involved in stem cell research, the proposals do not go far enough.

"The good news is that the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences is in favour of research using spare embryos," said Professor Karl-Heinz Krause, a researcher into the biology of ageing at Geneva University Hospital.

"The bad news is that the Academy makes too much of the use of adult stem cells which have nothing like the potential of embryonic stem cells."

The proposals do not represent the Academy's final position. "If future research indicates that the potential of adult stem cells is huge, then the guidelines would be redefined to refrain from using embryos for research purposes and instead concentrate on adult stem cells," said Leuthold.

"Conversely if the adult stem cells don't have the potential, then the Academy would focus more on the embryonic stem cells and maybe even fight for a new law which would allow this kind of research in Switzerland."

Swiss scientists have been calling for a new law to clear up the grey areas surrounding research into stem cells taken from human embryos. They say Switzerland has been slower than most other countries in reacting to advances in this field.

by Vincent Landon


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