Science & Technology

McGill hosts speakers on the ethical and legal ramifications of stem cell research

On Nov. 1, the McGill Journal of Law and Health hosted a speaker series with the goal to explore the ethical and legal ramifications of stem cell research. Michel Tremblay, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry at McGill, was the first speaker. Tremblay began by giving the audience a brief history of stem cell research.

Stem cells, discovered at McGill in the 1950s, reproduce through mitosis to produce more stem cells. There are two main types of stem cells; embryonic and adult. A large number of these cells can be used to treat various diseases such as cancer, obesity, spinal cord injuries, and organ failures.

“The idea of [using] embryonic stem cells is good,’ Tremblay said. “However, it isn’t easy, and brings up a lot of ethical questions.”

Fortunately, in 2006, Shinya Yamanaka, a Japanese Nobel Prize winner in stem cells research, proved that it was possible to use cells other than embryonic cells. He discovered that fusing stem cells with tumor cells can render them more potent, as their gene expression becomes dominant over that of the tumor cell. This means that stem cells multiplied to the extent where they fully suppressed and wiped out the tumor cells.

Despite the advancement in stem cell research due to technology like CRISPR-Cas9, there are issues of designer babies, stem cell tourism, and stem cells for tissue and organ replacement. These technologies allow for the specific manipulation of genomes in any human stem cell, which bring to rise ethical questions that must be considered when conducting future research.

“Technology to mute certain gene expression will change the world,” Tremblay said.

William Stanford, associate professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the University of Ottawa and researcher at the Ottawa Research Institute, spoke to these ethical issues of gene expression.

“The remarkable potential of stem cells to improve all spheres of biomedical research and treatment has spawn great competition due to lucrative potential of these technologies,” Stanford said.

With great power comes great responsibility, and despite the remarkable potential of stem cells, Stanford recognized there is still a need for a legal framework to mediate their applications and development–especially given that stem cell tourism, fake treatments, and non-clinically certified centres are growing and harming people. Stanford gave the example of a phony clinical trial in Florida that left 3 women blind because the procedure they underwent was not based on legitimate research and was essentially a money grab. Stanford warned that these fake treatments and trials are all too common.

Despite ethical concerns, it cannot be forgotten that stem cells have the power to save lives. William Brock, a guest speaker at the event, is a lawyer and partner at the Davies law firm, and a Leukemia survivor. Brock was told he had 8 months to live 13 years ago. One of his brother’s stem cells matched his own, and Brock underwent a stem cell transplant in Montreal.

“Society shouldn’t have the right to decide if I should have a life-saving treatment,” Brock said. “Whatever ethics looks like in Ivory castles, [it] looks different when you’re the one dying. For you, it’s an ethical issue for someone else, it’s their life.”

After Brock spoke, Trembly and Stanford recognized that his subjective nature of experience alters his viewpoint. They remained firm in the belief that due to its wildly immense potential, stem cell research and treatment and research must for the foreseeable future continue to be held to ethical and legal rules.

The speakers were eloquent, well informed, well received, and added more layers to the multi-faceted topic of stem cell research and treatment. In the future, more questions are expected to be raised and solved in Canada. At McGill today, students and staff are living not only in the age, but in the place of discovery about stem cell research. Stanford emphasized that Canada is an important player in the field.

“If hockey is Canada’s sport, stem cell science is Canada’s research,” Stanford said.

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