Christianity and the Petri dish

The Church of Scotland stance on stem cell research has proved religious conviction and scientific d

The progress of the recent update of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act through Parliament has, perhaps inevitably, generated much controversy, largely due to some of the areas covered by the Act, such as research on human embryos and “saviour siblings”.

One of the major areas of contention centres around stem cell technology. These special cells, characterised by their ability to self-regenerate and to be programmed to develop into particular types of cell, hold promise for treating neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries. Much of the controversy surrounds the source of these cells: human embryos.

In order to generate sufficient numbers of embryonic stem (ES) cells, researchers need access to early human embryos. A major source of these embryos, the surplus from cycles of IVF treatment is drying up. Technological advances now allow unfertilised eggs to be frozen, whereas previous incarnations of the procedure meant that eggs had to be fertilised before freezing.

A number of solutions to these supply problems are provided in the HFE Act (2008). These include the generation of embryos specifically for research (rather than “spare” IVF embryos), and also the development of “cybrid” - human-animal cytoplasmic hybrid embryos.

Obtaining human sperm is easy; getting access to good quality ova involves a much more invasive procedure, so few women donate for research purposes.

A visit to an abattoir, however, yields large numbers of cows eggs: the genetic material in the centre of these can be replaced relatively simply with that of a human cell, resulting in a “hybrid”, where most of the genetic material is human but the other part (the cytoplasm) is bovine.

Both solutions generate disquiet within many faith communities: generating human embryos simply for research purposes seems to invalidate the “special status” accorded them in previous legislation, and the fundamental mixing of human and animal material in cybrids crosses a line with which many are uncomfortable.

For its part, the 2006 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the policy making body of the church, voted to "oppose the creation for research or therapy of parthenogenetic human embryos, animal-human hybrid or chimeric embryos, or human embryos that have been deliberately made non-viable.”

In an approach which may be seen as being particularly prescient, however, the church has positively sought to “urge Her Majesty’s Government to encourage research into stem cells derived from adult tissues and placental cord blood, and to work to find therapeutic solutions which avoid embryo use."

Not only have many attempts to generate viable embryonic stem cells from cybrids proved more difficult than anticipated, but the rise of an “ethics free” alternative to ES cells seems to largely obviate the need to use human embryos in research.

These so called “induced pluripotent” (IP) cells involve artificially “regressing” specialised human cells (such as skin cells) so that they acquire the ability of stem cells to be reprogrammed into other cell types.

Although IP cells have not yet achieved the “gold standard” set by true ES cells, the ease with which they can be generated and the rapid advance of the technology, coupled to the lack of ethical “baggage”, is causing great excitement in the stem cell research world, and within the faith community.

Dr Murdo MacDonald is Policy Officer for the Society, Religion and Technology Project at the Church of Scotland