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Human embryonic stem cells

This week the supreme court ruled that the protection of the constitution afforded to the ‘unborn’ does not extend to human embryos until there are implanted in the womb. This land mark decision opens the door a little further for medical researchers to carry out research work using human embryonic stem cells (hESC). While there is still no legislation preventing research work with hESC, there is a noticeable reluctance by the universities, (except Cork) and funding bodies to entertain support for such research. At the same time we are quite happy to avail of vaccines that use human embryonic cells in their production and or quality control processed. In fact researchers across the country currently use a range of human embryonic and foetal cell lines in the work without any funding of ethical difficulties. This type of double standard and lack of clear joined up thinking seems to be endemic in this country.

There is a clear opportunity in Ireland at the moment to take a lead in hESC research if we are prepared to make decisions. Making difficult decisions is not something we are always terribly good at in this country. Most researchers who want to work on hESC simply wish to import hESC lines that are already produced and readily available internationally. There really is very little difference in using say MRC5 or HEK cells and hESC. All are derived from the same source and the former two cell line have made very significant contributions to human health as they are used routinely in vaccine production as I mentioned above. The benefits of hESC research work are potential very significant and if we as a country don’t grab the opportunity we have we will be play catch up once again in this field of research.

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