A confusing variety of laws governing stem cell research in many nations has led to a global effort by scientists, ethicists, lawyers and others to set principles by which stem cell investigations should proceed. The effort is devoted in part to facilitating international scientific collaboration in this field.
A group of 60 scientists, bioethicists, philosophers, lawyers, journal editors and government regulators from 14 countries met in the British city of Hinxton in late February, and agreed on principles to guide stem cell research in a variety of political settings. A separate group, called the International Society for Stem Cell Research, is expected to issue its proposals in July, based on guidance from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
British diplomat Julian Braithwaite in Washington calls such standards a top scientific priority.
"There are few issues in science today more important than putting in place the right framework for stem cell research, a framework that stimulates research while addressing the important ethical and public policy issues that this new field raises," he said.
Stem cells are basic cells in embryos that can become any kind of tissue as the fetus develops. Scientists say stem cells hold out hope as cures for many diseases, if they can be injected into patients and stimulate the growth of healthy replacement tissue.
Controversy arises because stem cells must be obtained from human embryos. Opponents of the research are against creating and destroying them for this sole purpose. In the United States, strong opposition has led President Bush to restrict researchers, funded by the government, to using only existing stem cell lines, so they will not create new ones.
But rules elsewhere differ. The Hinxton meeting was convened to sort out how stem cell research can proceed amid conflicting global standards.
One of the organizers of the panel was Ruth Faden, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
"Global guidance for scientists is critical, because the absence of such puts us where we are right now -- with a great deal of confusion among the scientific community about how, ethically, they should conduct their collaborative work across national boundaries," she said.
The Hinxton statement, hammered out over three days, recognizes that societies have the right to regulate science, and scientists must obey the law. But Faden says lawmakers have their own obligations to scientists.
"With the authority to regulate science comes the responsibility on the part of lawmakers to be clear about what is legal, and what is not legal, in the area of stem cell research," she added. "Some of what was discussed at the meeting had to do with the chilling effect that occurs, not so much when laws are clear, but when laws are unclear, and people who want to obey the law don't know whether what they want to consider doing is legal or not."
The Hinxton conferees urge governments to be cautious about regulating stem cell research, and to adopt rules that are flexible enough to accommodate rapid scientific advance. They also appeal to countries with restrictive stem cell laws not to discriminate against scientists, who want to travel abroad for ethical work in this field.
In the end, they consider it essential for scientists and policy-makers to consult with each other, and the public, to develop regulatory schemes that strike the best possible balance between free scientific inquiry and social values.
Ruth Faden says it was not easy getting 60 participants from 14 countries to agree on these recommendations. It helped that they avoided some tough issues, such as the moral status of embryos.
"We did not know if we would come out with a consensus statement," she explained. "In fact, that we would get a consensus on anything was pretty impressive to us, but there was a remarkable degree of consensus. The points may seem obvious on reading them, but they were not obvious in debating them."
The Hinxton group planned its meeting before the recent revelations about fraudulent stem cell research by South Korean scientist Hwang Woo Suk. But the final consensus statement asks scientific journals to list the contributions of each author of a paper, and to require authors to submit data proving the authenticity of their stem cell lines.