An international group of scientists produce global guidelines for research, but not all are impressed
By Laura Nelson | February 27, 2006
Scientists from around the world have produced a set of global guidelines for stem cell research, which they hope will aid collaboration and progress in the field. But some researchers have greeted the guidelines with skepticism, unconvinced that they will achieve universal standards.
Sixty researchers, ethicists, scientific journal editors, and lawyers from 14 countries met last week for the first time in Cambridge, UK, and established principles that they believe will be useful for researchers in countries with minimal regulations, such as China or South Korea. The principles resemble regulations in the UK, which has adopted a tight regulatory framework for this research. The group also set forth recommendations for maintaining the integrity of the research, and encouraging governments with restrictive rules to become more lenient.
?This consensus is giving guidance on how to do things properly,? Robin Lovell-Badge, developmental geneticist at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, who was at the three-day meeting, told The Scientist.
However, some scientists who were not involved in the discussion say they are uncertain about the impact it will have. ?I think the regulatory system that we have in the UK is the best, but I don?t think you can coerce other people to take it on,? Stephen Minger, stem cell scientist at King?s College London, told The Scientist.
The project was initiated about two years ago by scientists and bioethicists at John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, with the goal of establishing voluntary guidelines to help international cooperation in stem cell research. The Cambridge meeting marked the establishment of the ?Hinxton group? -- the assembly of experts -- which plans to meet regularly, with the next gathering within the next two years.
One of the group?s main recommendations is that scientific journals and peer review referees should have a role in the regulation of stem cell research, by having a set of standards for submissions. This approach, already used by clinical journals, would ensure that all researchers adhere to the same rules, and help avoid publishing fraudulent work such as that led by Woo-Suk Hwang.
Alta Charo, lawyer at the University of California in Berkeley, who was not at the meeting, said that the call for authentication of data is a new step. However, ?some journals may be reluctant to be cast in the role of investigators rather than peer reviewers,? she noted. Minger added that he thinks it will be difficult to achieve universal standards, because not all the journals would take part.
The consensus also calls on funding bodies to become tougher on demanding that research be carried out according to global standards. The Hinxton group plans to set up a Web site to disseminate information about stem cell research policies around the world and established codes of conduct.
Ruth Faden, biomedical ethicist at Johns Hopkins University, and one of the organizers for the Hinxton group, told The Scientist that many countries are developing policies without taking account of what?s been done elsewhere. ?There?s a lot of reinventing the wheel,? she said.
The group also called on countries with relatively restrictive policies to allow their researchers to travel to undertake stem cell research, and not penalize them when they return. Germany, for example, applies its strict domestic law to its citizens even when they are outside its borders.
Shahin Rafii, medical geneticist at Cornell University, New York, who was not at the meeting, noted that he would like to see a consensus that further challenges such restrictive governments ? such as, calling for the US and other countries to designate public funds for the science. ?This is not a scientist?s problem, it is a government problem - [governments] are blocking out research,? he told The Scientist.
But the main objective of the consensus is to help researchers from different countries work together, not override the existing laws, said Lovell-Badge. ?It?s easier to help countries that have no rules.?
Links within this article
Consensus statement on stem cells, ethics and law
I.Oransky, ?All Hwang cloning work fraudulent,? The Scientist, January 10, 2006
S. Pincock, ?UK grants cloning license,? The Scientist, August 12, 2004.