In my second blog post, I already talked about the ethics around stem cell research and the use of human embryonic stem (hES) cells in this research. But what does the law say?
Because of the diversity in Europe, the regulations that exist in the EU member states are also very varying. The next pdf file shows an overview of some regulations in the EU member states about the use of hES cells:
In this table you can see that Belgium is one of the few EU member states that allows creation of human embryos for procurement of hES cells. Also the use of the so-called “surplus” embryos to obtain hES cells is legal. As a couple makes use of in vitro fertilization, they will fertilize more eggs than needed. This excess of fertilized eggs are the surplus embryos and can be donated to another infertile couple or to further research.
In Belgium we have the “embryo law” which is operational since May 2005 (but signed since May 2003). This law specifies under which conditions, within what limits and which procedures need to be followed for scientific research on embryos in vitro. But it is also extended to the regulations for the use of hES cells and gamete donors.
The “production” of hES cells starts with a normal human blastocyst (see picture below) or from blastocysts with a certain genetic condition. The ICM is then extracted and kept in specific conditions to maintain the proliferation or to start differentiation to the functional cells of the body (depends on the goal of the research). It is so that the research must happen within 14 days of the embryonic development.
Another method to obtain embryos is cloning. This often raises extreme thoughts of cloning humans and things like that. There is a clear distinction between therapeutic cloning and reproduction cloning. The first one is legal in Belgium, the second one is NOT! Therapeutic cloning happens as follows: you have a donor egg and a somatic cell of a certain patient. The core of the egg is removed and replaced with the core of the somatic cell. Then the cell division is again started. After a while, the hES cells can be removed, and with this the embryo will be destroyed (which must happen, otherwise it isn’t legal). This stands in contrast with the reproduction cloning, because it will result in another human identical to the patient who donated the somatic cell.
Of course the use of surplus embryos is preferred, but it seems that these aren’t always good enough for some studies, and then we have the possibility to produce our own embryos in Belgium. I find this a very good regulation, because it makes many studies possible, which isn’t the case in all the other countries. So go Belgium (and some others)!