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More institutions developing stem cell research ethics oversight, survey shows

by David Bauman- April 2, 2007

In the first attempt to track ethical oversight activity among U.S. research institutions engaged in human embryonic stem cell research, a survey done by UConn’s Office of Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight (ESCRO) finds that a majority have, or plan to establish, special ethics review panels for this research.

The UConn survey, released last week, found that 74 percent of the responding institutions said yes when asked, “Does your institution currently have an ESCRO?”

Virtually all who said no indicated that they have plans to establish one in the near future.

Of those institutions responding affirmatively, almost 80 percent established their ESCRO committees in 2006.

“This gives us a peek at how embryonic ESCRO’s are,” quips Anne Hiskes, an associate professor of philosophy, who is director of stem cell research ethics and education at UConn and chair of the UConn ESCRO Committee.

Hiskes and Krysten Brown, a graduate student in sociology, conducted the survey to showcase ethical issues at an international stem cell symposium – StemCONN07 – held in Hartford last week.

They presented their findings during a symposium workshop titled “Preparing for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Review in a Politically Charged Environment.”

The purpose of the survey was to obtain a national snapshot of the current state of ESCRO committee activities, issues, and guidelines that could be of use to other institutions in this emerging area of research.

Another catalyst was concern over potential loss of public confidence in the field of regenerative medicine caused by highly visible cases of scientific fraud.

Of 140 individuals invited to participate in the survey, only 40 responded and just 29 completed the entire survey.

“A lot of institutions may not have much to say about ESCRO activity, either because they don’t have one or because ESCRO’s are so new,” says Hiskes.

“Not only is the area of human embryonic stem cell research new, but the creation of these oversight committees is a response to guidelines published by the National Academies of Science as recently as April 2005.”

Yet it is hoped the survey will help start a dialogue between scientists and the wider public over issues of ethical concern, Hiskes says.

“It is a useful barometer of the state of the research and ethical oversight. It should support public confidence in stem cell science.”

The survey requests a breakdown of funding for stem cell research from private donations, foundations, federal, and state sources, and asks

  • whether institutions have adopted the 2005 National Academy of Science ethical guidelines or have drafted ethical protocols of their own;
  • whether institutions simply accept federally approved stem cell lines or investigate the provenance of those stem cell lines;
  • whether an institution shares stem cell lines and embryos with other institutions; and
  • what policies have been developed for compensation for egg and sperm donors.

Laws vary, says Hiskes. She says Connecticut forbids reimbursement for travel, childcare, loss of wages, or the like, for women who want to donate eggs for research purposes.

However 34 percent of the survey respondents indicated that this sort of reimbursement is allowed at their institution.

“This is a hot ethical issue,” says Hiskes.

Because obtaining eggs from women is a highly invasive procedure, there is a shortage of donated eggs, thus making the eggs financially valuable.

“There are strong emotions associated with the female role in this area of research,” Hiskes added.

“Our survey reflects different attitudes that come into play when balancing the goals of scientific research; the need to show appropriate respect for human beings; and sensitivity to public hopes and concerns about stem cell research.”

When the Connecticut General Assembly authorized public financing of human embryonic stem cell research in 2005, UConn moved quickly to create guidelines for ethical conduct in this sensitive area.

UConn’s ESCRO committee, created in 2005, is composed of community members, and scientific, ethical, and legal experts.

It has final approval authority over all proposed stem cell research projects at the University.

Every project must meet a simply stated test: are the anticipated benefits to human health greater than any potential risks to human dignity and the value of human life?

“A key goal of scientific research is the improvement of the human condition,” says Hiskes.

“Individual scientists and the institutions that house them have an affirmative obligation to uphold ethical standards and basic human values.”

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