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Stem cells: let’s draw a line between personal views and scientific fact

I THANK Oliver Broderick (Letters, May 13) for his engaging and questioning letter directed to me on stem cell research.

He wished to know my opinion on ‘induced pluripotency’, or the new method of deriving human pluripotent stem cells. The answer is I am well aware of it and have been engaged in such research for years.

I have published in peer-reviewed journals on the subject (See scienific journals Differentiation and Reproductive Biomedicine Online).

Mr Broderick is right to be enthusiastic about this new research. I certainly am, but despite what is sometimes said in the media, this type of research is only starting and current attempts, both of mine and my colleagues, have failed, as yet, to remove the cancer risk represented by both the viruses and genes used in the human system.

One paper has been published by this technique’s pioneer, Shinya Yamanaka, showing we could be heading in the right direction by reprogramming liver cells instead of fibroblasts, but he and another prominent stem cell scientist from Harvard have written a commentary stating that promising results of the induced pluripotency method have not yet reached the certainty which we would need to abandon conventional embryonic stem cell research.

Unfortunately, some Irish science public representatives believe they know the science better than the scientists pioneering it and, because of this, they rob the Irish public of the opportunity to make up their minds based on the actual scientific facts (regardless if they want to take these facts into account or not).

Everyone can and should have an opinion on this complex subject, but universities and institutes of technology should restrain staff from using the names of their institutions when presenting their personal convictions as ‘objective science’.

Society looks to scientists as dispensers of objective scientific fact, and so they should draw a line clearly between what is science and what is their own personal opinion when dealing with patients and with the media. This is my overriding concern. The Irish people can decide for themselves on this and any other scientific or medical topic, but when they are denied objective scientific fact, Irish scientists are failing Ireland.

As I stated in an earlier article (‘Facts should replace heat in stem cell debate’, April 25), Irish patients are placed at risk by so-called “scam cell therapies” when ignorant of these facts.

Genes used in this new “embryo-free” reprogramming approach were originally found in experiments using embryonic material, showing that work in one field can unexpectedly spill into another with progressive results.

I believe that national science and medical policy should be based on what we know for certain as tested many times in multiple labs and published in peer-reviewed journals — not what we hope the experiments will say in the future.

Long-term guessing in research is a risky process, and when it seeks to cure degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or Type 1 diabetes we should definitely pursue it on several fronts. I have worked with Dolly cloner Prof Ian Wilmut for years at the Roslin Institute and I know he would stand by the Q&A panel accompanying the article referred to above as being scientifically accurate.

As pluripotent stem cell research is one of the most politicised branches of biomedical science in the US under George Bush, certain media machines commonly spin any related science beyond objective reasoning. This, unfortunately, is also the case in Ireland.

I take exception to Mr Broderick’s comment that patient groups should not bother to make known their feelings on pluripotent stem cell research.

I think we can all agree the feelings and opinions of the patient are sometimes overlooked in public discussions on health issues in Ireland.

Let’s listen to what they all have to say without reprisal on this topic.

Dr Stephen Sullivan

Department of Anatomy and Embryology

Leiden University Medical Centre

Leiden

The Netherlands


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