Stem-cell work possible with safeguards: Khaw
IN THE 1986 science-fiction movie The Fly, a scientist’s project goes wrong and he becomes a horrific human-fly hybrid.
Using the movie as an anecdote, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan wrote in his blog yesterday that there should be room to pursue “genuine research with good potential”, but that safeguards have to be in place to rein in rogue scientists.
It was his first comment since the Bioethics Advisory Committee (BAC) released its recommendations on human-animal combinations in stem-cell research in Singapore on Wednesday.
The report called for a national body to oversee human stem-cell research in Singapore and for there to be a review of all stem-cell research involving human-animal combinations of cells.
In the blog post, titled Yuck, Say No?, Mr Khaw said that research involving mixing human and animal organs or tissues has always been fodder for Hollywood movies.
However, while such “artistic creativity” has helped raise awareness of these issues, it also has the tendency to “misinform” and “miseducate”.
He said: “I remember the movie, The Fly, in which a research project went awry and the scientist involved acquired fly-like capabilities and yucky eating habits. He tried desperately to reverse the experiment but never succeeded.”
The easiest thing, as a regulator, is to say “No” to all such pursuits but we will be missing out on opportunities that can benefit us all, he added.
“In any case, sweeping things under the carpet does not prevent rogue scientists from pushing the boundary in perverse ways.”
The health minister acknowledged the difficult task that the council, which is headed by Professor Lim Pin, had.
He said it was an issue the members had grappled with for several years, and he expressed confidence in their research.
“As cautious, wise persons, they consulted extensively with scientists, lay public, religious leaders, ethicists, international experts,” the minister said.
He added that his ministry is studying the recommendations and would respond.
“Personally, I find the proposed BAC approach practical: allow some research, but limit it to a narrow area where the potential for benefits is significant and real, and regulate such research tightly,” he said.
“As for the potentially yucky stuff, continue to prohibit it.”
The council was set up by the Government in December 2000.
Its role is to look at potential ethical, legal and social issues arising from research in the biomedical sciences, and to make suitable recommendations.
A working group was formed by the 13-member committee in 2006 to address increasing ethical debate worldwide on human-animal research.
Among the council’s other recommendations: animals with human stem cells introduced into them should not be allowed to breed, and research staff objecting to human-stem cell research should not be forced to take part in it.