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Stems of potential

IN MARCH last year US president Barak Obama lifted the Bush government’s ban on embryonic stem cell research.
No such ban has applied to research in Australia.

While the scientific community throughout the world welcomed the decision, it has reignited debate about the ethics of such research.

Few medical issues are as layered with emotion and rhetoric as embryonic stem cell research.

The debate has yet again exposed the chasm that often exists between the world of science and the world of faith.

Crosslight, the magazine of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, spoke to Uniting Church member and senior research fellow at Monash University’s immunology and stem cell laboratories, Dr David Cram about faith, science and hope for the future.

“My view is that if we have the technologies available, then we need to be able to use them. But of course we need to then balance it out with ethical issues as well.”

A Uniting Church member and leader in his chosen field of genetic research, Dr Cram said when he began working with the Monash IVF unit about eleven years ago, part of his research involved screening embryos for genetic diseases.

“When I was interviewed for my current position and started doing work on human embryos one of the things we discussed was whether I was happy doing this particular work,” Dr Cram explains.

“I thought really hard about that and drew my own personal line in the sand about what I thought was acceptable and what wasn’t.

“As time went by and I met with parents of children with genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis, my line in the sand shifted.

“When you see what these families go through, of course you want to help them.

“But there are some things I think are not acceptable.

“For example, I don’t agree with using the technology for non-medical – or social – sex selection.”

Dr Cram feels a responsibility to demystify the highly complex work he is doing.

In doing so, he hopes to generate well-informed community discussions.

He admits that often, much-needed ethical debates have not kept pace with advances in technology.

“In the past, particularly with regard to IVF, we did things without an ethical discussion.

“Things would happen and we’d sort the ethical stuff out later, which is obviously the wrong way around.”

Although Dr Cram is keen to educate people about his work, he speaks without the proselytising fervour of a zealot. He simply wants people to know the facts and then decide for themselves.

“People have genuine concerns, but often they don’t come from a good basis.

“I like to be able to at least give them something else to think about.

“If they’ve at least got the facts right, then they can think about their attitude and make a bit more of an informed decision.”
One of the most common concerns raised, particularly within church communities, is the emotive issue of working with human embryos.

Dr Cram said it was important to understand that in Australia, embryos are not created with the specific intent of harvesting stem cells. The embryos used in research are excess from IVF procedures. These unused frozen embryos are kept for five years before being disposed of or used for research.

“A frequent comment is that we shouldn’t be messing with embryos,” he said.

“We went down the road of making human embryo stem cell lines without any discussion, so these stem cell lines actually exist; we can’t take them back.

“So now that we have them, we might as well use them.

“By using them for a good purpose, I believe we give respect back to the embryo it was created from.

“If you just discard those embryos, there is no respect at all.

“Put it this way, if you asked an embryo a question and it could think and answer you, what would the embryo actually say?
“ ’Would you like to be discarded and thrown away?’ Or ‘Would you like to be used for a useful purpose?’ What would the embryo say?
“I think the embryo would say ‘Well if I’ve only got those two choices, then perhaps I would want to be remembered and used for something good’. ”

As Dr Cram discusses the amazing possibilities of stem cell research it is easy to see why he is so passionate about his work.

“Most scientists are saying that within the next ten years we should be able to understand how to make all the different cells of the body, and use them for treatment of disease.

“Some of the big diseases we can target would be rheumatoid arthritis, insulin dependent diabetes, heart disease and also a whole range of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and dementia.”