Ethics: Can Human Embryonic Stem Cells be an Ethical Alternative to Animal Experiments?
The justification for research using hESCs has primarily been based on their prospects for use in therapy, in various forms of regenerative medicine. This project, however, uses them as sources of human cells to be used for the testing of potential therapeutic drugs, especially to test for potential toxic effects. The ethical discussion of this use is comparatively limited. Thus the EC European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies, in its opinion 15 "Ethical Aspects of Human Stem Cell Research and Use" of 2000, recognised that cultured differentiated cell lines for pharmacology studies and toxicology testing were "the most likely immediate biomedical application" of hESCs. But it did not offer an ethical opinion to this use. It restricted its ethical discussion to the case of using stem cells for developing new treatments for diseases or injuries.
By extension, however, it may be argued that the use of surplus embryos which would be destroyed in any case, should also apply to research into toxicology of potential medicines. The use of cells derived from human stem cells as an alternative to animals also raises questions of comparative ethical "goods" of these different means to help address human suffering. These are complex questions which will be examined as part of the ethical component of this programme.
Another issue concerns the derivation of human gametes from hESCs. The consortium partners decided not to carry out research until the ethical implications had been the subject of in-depth analysis as part of the ethical component of this programme. This aspect of reproductive toxicity testing will in a first stage be carried out using mouse ESCs. If the discussion of ethical implications results in a recommendation to carry out this research with hESCs, the partners will reconsider this decision.