Signals Blog

Human embryonic stem cells. Creative Commons.

Trustees at the Halton Catholic District School Board adopted a motion last week to ban board donations to non-profits or charities that publicly support “either directly or indirectly, abortion, contraception, sterilization, euthanasia, or embryonic stem cell research.”

Opposition to embryonic stem cell research is nothing new.

In August 2001, American stem cell researchers were greatly hindered in their efforts when U.S. President George W. Bush introduced a ban on federal funding for research on newly created human embryonic stem (ES) cell lines. (Research on existing cell lines could still be eligible for federal funding, but as Varnee Murugan writes in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, “A slew of negative ramifications followed for ES cell researchers.”)

Eight years later, President Barack Obama lifted federal funding restrictions on research involving new lines of human embryonic stem cells. But the debate rages on.

Embryonic stem cells are derived from blastocysts: clusters of 180 to 200 cells that are grown in a petri dish and never implanted in a woman’s uterus. These blastocysts typically come from fertility clinics once it has been determined they will no longer be used for assisted reproduction and they are donated for research purposes.

In Canada, It is illegal to create embryos for research purposes, so the only embryos used here for stem cell research come from existing cell lines, or from embryos that are destined to be discarded because they will not be used for in vitro fertilization.

The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), an organization that represents stem cell researchers from over 60 countries, opposes blanket prohibitions to embryonic stem cell research. As recently as August 2017, ISSCR and 60 medical, patient and academic groups opposed prohibitions or restrictions that would “further impede the use of [U.S.] federal funding for […] embryonic stem cell research.” In its letter to the U.S. Senate, the signatories stated that embryonic stem cell research is “critical to addressing important questions in biomedical research, and for the development of new therapies and cures. Legal and ethical frameworks in place ensure appropriate oversight, and that human embryonic and fetal tissue is obtained legally and with donor consent.” You can read ISSCR’s guidelines on human embryonic stem cell research here.

While U.S. research federal funding depends on adhering to federal guidelines, Canadian research activities are restricted by federal legislative prohibitions (criminal law).

The Hospital for Sick Children was singled out by the Halton Board to be denied the proceeds of fundraising efforts because of its use of embryonic stem cells. This hospital, along with others in Canada, follows legislation developed by the Government of Canada, such as the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, that prohibits the creation of embryos for research purposes and the use of such embryos without explicit consent from the donors. As well, all Canadian research funding applications involving human pluripotent stem cells “that have been derived from an embryonic source and/or will be transferred into humans or non-human animals” are reviewed by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Stem Cell Oversight Committee, a group consisting of stem cell scientists, clinicians, ethicists, law professors and more.

Canada is admired and respected for its excellence in stem cell science, and its scientists and researchers have received international awards and recognition for their groundbreaking work. If upset students and their parents are not able to overturn the Halton Board’s motion, what will that mean for leading-edge research that could one day lead to life-saving treatments or cures? Please share your comments below.



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Stacey Johnson

Stacey Johnson

For almost 20 years, Stacey has been providing strategic communications counsel to government, corporate, technology and health organizations. Prior to that, Stacey was at the CTV Television Network, first as a researcher, then as a story producer for “Goldhawk Fights Back,” a special ombudsman segment that aired weekly on the National News and Canada AM. Before joining CCRM as the Director, Communications and Marketing, Stacey was the Director of Communications for the Canadian Arthritis Network. Stacey is editor of Signals. You can follow Stacey on Twitter @msstaceyerin.