Recap of Speaker Series 2017: Ethical and Legal Ramifications of Stem Cell Research

Posted by Handi Xu

Our first Speaker Series event of the 2017-2018 academic year consisted of a discussion on the ethical and legal ramifications of stem cell research. This event presented diverse perspectives on research involving the development, use, and destruction of human embryos, as well as its many potential benefits and its complexities and regulations.

Dr. Michel L. Tremblay, a leading researcher from McGill University’s Biochemistry Department, discussed the evolution of stem cell use and its current clinical applications. Notably, stem cells are capable of reproducing themselves and are also able to differentiate into other cell types. Since stem cells are difficult to isolate in humans, experiments involving embryo stem cells are usually performed using animals. These experiments aim to create stem cell mutations in order to understand normal gene function as well as their association to various human diseases such as cancer and obesity.

IMG_2747 Dr. Tremblay spoke about the current clinical applications of stem cells 

In 2006, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, a Japanese stem cell researcher, discovered through the fusion of stem cells and tumor cells that some genes responsible for stem cell properties were dominant over other gene expressed in non-stem cells. Therefore, the fusion of these stem cells and cancer cells led the majority of the fused cells to be stem cell like.  He then discovered that only four dominant genes in stem cells were necessary to transform a normal cell into a stem cell (Induced Pluripotent Stem cells or IPS cells). He shared the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine with Sir John B. Gurdon for showing that mature cells can be reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells. This line of work proved that it was possible to use cells other than those from the embryo to generate stem cells, hence removing one of the major ethical issues of using human embryos to obtain stem cells. Nowadays, novel technologies of genetic engineering, such as CRISPR-Cas9-technology, allow the generation of specific manipulations of genomes in any human stem cell and in other cell types.

Dr. William Stanford, an influential stem cell researcher from the Ottawa Research Institute, detailed the history of stem cells discoveries. He further discussed the use of stem cells in clinical trials to treat a great number of diseases such as diabetes, blindness, and heart disease. They are also starting to be used in the development and assessment of new therapeutic drugs. However, the remarkable potential of stem cells to improve all spheres of biomedical research and treatment has spawn great competition due to the lucrative potential of these technologies. Since the cost and ethical regulations of stem research and therapies differ among many countries, other issues such as stem cell therapeutic “tourism”, fake treatments, and non-ethical research programs in non-clinically certified centres, have resulted in harm to patients in many countries lacking regulation. There is a continuous need for maintaining a legal framework for their applications as well as constant effort to inform the public on the advances and limitations of stem cells activities.

IMG_2749 Dr. Stanford spoke about ethical complications with stem cell therapies in countries lacking proper regulation 

Finally, Me. William Brock, a partner at Davies and a leukemia survivor that underwent bone marrow stem cell transplant, expressed his opinion on stem cell research from a patient’s perspective. Not only did his treatment allow him to realize how fragile and important life is, but it also led him to acknowledge the power of science.

IMG_2753 Me. Brock spoke about his personal experience receiving stem cell therapy 

Indeed, scientific progress has permitted the 100% mortality rate of leukemia fifty years ago to drop to 10% for children and 50% for adults today. Me. Brock also explained that ethics is differently defined for everyone; while one person might find stem cell research unethical, another person’s life or death could rely on stem cells. He believes that society cannot decide for a patient whether they should be allowed to receive a stem cell treatment or not.