Canada Weighs Stem Cell Studies

OTTAWA--New guidelines drafted by a blue-ribbon panel would allow Canadian scientists to derive stem cells from fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions or embryos left over from fertility treatments. The guidelines, issued last week by a committee formed by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), go beyond the U.S. policy that requires government-funded scientists to obtain the cells from private sources but fall short of the U.K. rules, which allow scientists to create embryos for research purposes.

The guidelines recommend against donating or selling gametes to create embryos for the sole purpose of generating stem cell lines and urge a moratorium on embryos created by somatic cell nuclear transfer, saying that the underlying science is flimsy and that the practice would inevitably lead down the slippery slope to human cloning. A national advisory body would oversee stem cell research, both public and privately funded, and could license researchers. The creation of such an oversight body is expected to be part of long-promised federal legislation on reproductive technologies.

Antiabortion groups have quickly lined up against the guidelines. "We're well aware of the utilitarian argument, that [fetal tissue from elective abortions and embryos from fertility treatments] are going to be discarded anyway," says Tim Bloedow, spokesperson for the Campaign Life Coalition. "But we do not feel it's right to use that tissue for this kind of research."

Women's groups will also be watching closely. They fear that the use of embryos created for research purposes could ultimately lead to the "commodification" of women and the sale of ova. "That would certainly be the dividing line," says Ruth Brown, health convener for the National Council of Women of Canada. "These processes should not be commercialized."

The guidelines will go before the CIHR governing board this fall. If the board approves the guidelines, CIHR president Alan Bernstein forecasts a boom in stem cell research once money becomes available. Mick Bhatia, who works with blood stem cells at the John P. Robarts Institute in London, Ontario, agrees that interest is high. But he says he also would like the final guidelines to satisfy a certain ethical "comfort level" among the general population.

Related site

CIHR press release, with a link to the full report