Code of ethics developed for Canadian stem cell research

A made-in-Canada charter outlining the ethical principles of international stem cell research is being presented Tuesday at the World Stem Cell Summit in Baltimore.

A made-in-Canada charter outlining the ethical principles of international stem cell research is being presented Tuesday at the World Stem Cell Summit in Baltimore.

The Stem Cell Charter is a collective call to action in support of stem cell research and a web-based, interactive document detailing how that science should be advanced and pursued, says lead author Bartha Knoppers, a bioethicist at McGill University in Montreal.

The charter, available in both English and French at stemcellcharter.org, lays out a code of conduct for stem cell researchers aimed at promoting science that is carried out in a responsible, ethical way while protecting people from harm and safeguarding the public trust.

“There have been a lot of spurious claims in this area, people doing the first of this or the first of that, and it not being true,” said Knoppers.

Then there is the issue of “stem cell tourism,” in which some private clinics in China and other overseas countries promise cures for certain diseases and spinal cord injuries using stem cell injections. But these clinics, which can charge tens of thousands of dollars, provide no scientific evidence to back their claims.

“We’d like to keep it a credible science, we’d like to keep it a science that merits public investment and public funding,” said Knoppers, adding that people need to know how to “distinguish the real science from the hyped-up private profiteering.”

Signing on and adhering to the charter is one way of doing that, she said.

“It’s a wake-up call to scientists to remind them that if they want to work in this field, they have to do so under a scientific code of conduct and it’s to reassure the public that this is not the Wild West.”

The voluntary charter will be presented as part of the keynote address to the World Stem Cell Summit by Alan Lewis, president and CEO of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International, one of the organizations that has already signed the document.

Stem cells give rise to other cells of the body and are considered the Holy Grail of regenerative medicine.

Researchers around the world are working on using stem cells as the basis for treating debilitating and often fatal conditions such as multiple sclerosis, blindness, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, diabetes and spinal cord injuries.

“We all have a vested interest in finding cures and moving them to the clinic,” James Price, head of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, said in a statement.

“This is why we created the Stem Cell Charter. It’s something that everyone, whether they are doctors, scientists, policy makers or the general public, can get behind.”

“It unifies us in support of this vital area of research.”

Ottawa researcher Dr. Michael Rudnicki, president of the Stem Cell Network, said the charter is a vehicle for members of the public who support stem cell research to make their voices heard.

He said the fact it was developed by Canadians reflects the country’s leadership in the field.

“Stem cells were first shown to exist in Canada, by (James) Till and (Ernest) McCulloch and we remain leaders scientifically in the area of stem cell research,” he said.

“I think often this fact isn’t recognized by government. This is an area of clear strategic strength for Canada.”

Knoppers said it will take some time for the charter and other such “aspirational documents” to become legislation or even professional guidelines in individual countries.

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