Research on human embryos
Hope is not helped
While we await the decision of the European Court of Justice on the issue of patents for embryonic stem-cell derived products and in Germany, a center has closed following the death of a baby treated with stem cells, in France, the Senate has re-established the ban on the use of human embryos for research. Protests were immediately launched condemning the decision as obscurantist and against freedom of research.
Although not without contradictions and incongruencies, the current situation of biological research – where the principal that all that is technically possible is legitimate, rules – the French law represents a courageous choice for the safeguarding of the dignity of the human person. Of course, it is a “ban with exceptions”: from the first passing of the French bioethics law in 2004 through today, the Agency of Biomedicine has authorized research using human embryos on 58 of its 64 projects (90.6%), demonstrating that certain agencies have the last word on exceptions. The norms, however, are important for their effect on custom and education and therefore a ban with exceptions is surely more acceptable than a norm which liberalizes with a few limits on human embryo research, such as in Britain.
In stem cell biomedicine, much erroneous information and lies circulate about real biological knowledge and clinical application. It is a situation which increases an a-critical mentality that demonizes any attempt at regulation as anti-scientific and opposed to progress. “Stem cells” has become a sort of magic word which produces added value (progressive) to everything: from cosmetics to the most absurd therapeutic possibilities. Surfing the Internet with the key word, “cellular therapy” one finds hundreds of sites offering unreal promises if not downright fraud. Yet these sites advertise high-sounding names of scientific institutions with medical staff who are able to cure any kind of pathology (and with the use of human embryonic cells). These institutions are often propped up by economic interest, sometimes with philosophical, pseudo-religious or magical overtones. In the best cases, there are therapies that have not yet been approved but in others there are useless therapies or even ones that can have a negative effect on health. The Committee for Advanced Therapies, a group of the European Medicine Agency, recently denounced medical tourism in the Lancet, targeting clinics that propose inefficient therapies, which are sometimes dangerous and always very expensive.
However limited, the phenomenon is also present in Europe and contributes to discrediting clinical research which conforms to correct ethical norms. Recently in Germany, stem cell therapies were investigated in the case of the x-Cell Center in Dusseldorf, a much sought-after clinic of medical tourism which benefited from Germany’s good medical and scientific reputation but failed to produce any documentation of its operations.
To avoid the increase of such phenomena, a system of controls and verification should be put in place as well as correct and honest dissemination of information. Even state-supported research centers are tempted to emphasize supposed discoveries in order to justify and obtain financing. The media, too, often look for the sensational without verifying the value and wholeness of the information which they report. It often happens that emphasizing certain biomedical information causes it to be received erroneously and creates unrealistic hope in patients and family members, with consequent disappointment. Everyone, and in particular patients, has the right to be informed of progress in medicine, but they also have a right not to be mislead. In fact, the hope of patients is not helped by lies.
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