Byline: Steffan Rhys
CONTROVERSIAL stem cell research is crucial to the potential discovery of cures for some of the country's most devastating illnesses, a Welsh scientist will argue today.
Dr Arwyn Jones, of Cardiff University, will tell an audience at the Eisteddfod's main science lecture that the technology could cure diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Parkinson's, as well as help understand conditions such as infertility.
He will say that the staunch ethical concerns of groups such as the Catholic Church, anti-abortion groups and some MPs are outweighed by the research's potential benefits, and that some of these concerns may now diminish with the development of adult stem cell technology.
Human embryonic stem cells are usually derived after IVF treatment from a structure called a blastocyst that forms a few days following fertilisation but before it attaches to the womb and develops into an embryo.
These cells have the potential to develop into any of the tissues and organs of the body and could therefore be used as seeds to make new cells and tissues for patients suffering from many diseases. Some of the pioneering work in this field is currently being done at Cardiff University by Nobel Prize winner Professor Sir Martin Evans.
But opponents say the practice compromises the sanctity of human life as it means deriving benefits from the destruction of human embryos: fertilised eggs in early stages of development.
More extreme viewpoints say the practice is tantamount to murder, abortion, "playing God" and even paves the way for cloned human beings.
"One of the ethical arguments raised is that if you are growing stem cells you are growing a new human being. I totally dismiss that argument," said Dr Jones, a senior lecturer in molecular cell biology at the Welsh School of Pharmacy, whose lecture is backed by the Wellcome Trust.
"The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act does not allow scientists to work on cells past 14 days.
"But that doesn't remove the ethical concerns. Some people believe a fertilised egg is the beginning of life and should not be tampered with in any shape or form. That is very much the view from Rome and from the White House.
"The majority of scientists working in the field would totally disagree. The potential to cure diseases outweighs these issues.
"They want to study the development of the embryo for issues like fertilisation and their potential to cure diseases. They have no interest in cloning a human being or anything as ridiculous as that.
"However, there have to be very strict guidelines as to how long we can grow stem cells or embryos in a laboratory and these are formally set out in the Act."
The research is legal in the UK, where it is among the most advanced in the world. It is also legal in the US but no federal funding is allocated to it, following staunch opposition from the Bush administration. …