ITALY – More reactions on blood produced from embryonic stem cells

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The subject of producing artificial blood from stem cells has become a hot topic in Italy. “Italy is close to reaching the same objective announced by British researchers, on a similar timeframe,” therefore possibly in three years, “but using adult stem cells. Certainly, it is one thing to say that in three years we will begin the experimental phase, it’s another thing to speak about industrial production. It needs to be specified that the procedure to produce artificial blood is very expensive. Therefore this would be a complementary solution, which will not replace donations,” Said Welfare Undersecretary Ferruccio Fazio, shortly after an announcement of a British study, during a meeting on blood transfusion by the Health Observatory in Rome.

“I would like to calm the enthusiasm after the announcement of the British study,” said Fazio. “There are Italian research groups that are doing very advanced projects on adult stem cells to produce artificial blood. The Italian way was also chosen by the US Armed Forces,” he specified. “We are working on adult stem cells also for long-term sustainability. There is also a collaboration in place between the Mayo Clinic in America and researchers of the Superior Institute of Health (ISS),” he added. “Therefore Italy is not behind in this sector. “This is a very expensive procedure though, which will never substitute donation,” confirmed Fazio.

Furthermore, the upcoming conference of the federal government and the regions should examine a provision “that proposes financing in all of the Italian regions for umbilical cord biobanks starting in 2009. This is something,” pointed out Fazio, “that will aid in research on blood from adult stem cells”. While labs in Italy have worked for years, Giuliano Graziani, the director of the national blood centre pointed out that “the production of artificial plasma will be extremely expensive. We are not disputing the importance of donating blood. Research like the British study is ongoing throughout the world. There are important studies,” he said, “whose results are not right around the corner, and which will never replace the key role of donations”.

“In addition to unacceptable ethical implications, this research has not demonstrated anything yet,” commented geneticist Bruno Dallapiccola regarding the announcement of several British researchers, published recently on the online edition of the Independent regarding the possibility of producing blood by using embryonic stem cells.

“There are no official results yet,” said the scientist in an interview with Vatican Radio, “and none of this research has been transferred to patients. Then,” he added, “rather than reading these results in the Independent, it would be appropriate to see them published in a scientific journal with critical revisers able to judge their basis.”

In the meanwhile, the geneticists said that embryonic stem cell research aimed at curing diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s “have not given any results yet”. A group of British researchers said that they will be able to obtain, within three years, an unlimited quantity of red blood cells from unused human embryos.

The Italian blood donor associations and federations warned against misleading enthusiasm. “In the first place, industrial production of blood from embryonic or adult stem cells will not occur for many years,” explained Aldo Ozio Caligaris, the national president of the Italian Federation of Blood Donors Associations (FIDAS) and current coordinator of the Association of Italian Volunteers for Blood Donation (CIVIS), “since we will have to wait three years for human testing”. “Second,” continued Caligaris, ” the industrial production necessary to cover the need of millions of patients will have enormous costs, so blood production from stem cells will never replace voluntary, free, and periodic donations. At best it will be a complementary element for specific cases.”

The coordinator also warned that “the big risk of saying that we will exceed the demand for blood transfusion,” said the CIVIS coordinator, “is telling citizens that there is no longer a need to donate, with the danger of sending the whole system of in Italy of blood donation into a crisis, which will send the entire healthcare system into crisis.”

The possibility of obtaining blood from stem cells “has opened up a debate in Italy about controversial scientific evidence: which is the more valid source of stem cells? Does it come from adults, like we say here in Italy, or from embryos, like they say in the rest of the world?” asked Luca Marini, a teacher of international law at La Sapienza University in Rome and president of the European Centre for Science, Ethics, and the Law (ECSEL). In the relationship between science, bioethics, and politics “it is necessary to keep each party in their respective role: science must remain free, unless it wants to relinquish scientific progress,” said Marini, “bioethics is called upon to evaluate the ethical profile of the technological and industrial applications of scientific progress. And politics must place limits and bans not on science, but on technical and industrial applications such as those that use the human body and its parts for business”. This is a logical and systematic approach that is very clear, instead “it is subject to manipulations from scientists, bioethicists, and politicians” underlined the president of ECSEL.

“Keeping that in mind,” added Marini who is the vice-president of the national committee for bioethics, “I believe that we must move past this routine in which each scientific discovery is questioned ethically. Research should not be disturbed or threatened, but it should be faced and regulated in a shared way. In the same way, the dominant political strategy regarding science used today in Italy must be abandoned, since politicians minimize scientific evidence, which is contrary to the beliefs of their contingency. This damages the formation of a responsible and informed public opinion, a central issue in the debate between science and society.”

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