Stem cells: a new type of biobank material?


Stem cells are perhaps not what first springs to mind as biobank material. Yet, even stem cells can be biobank material and there are biobanks that focus on stem cells. The use of this biobank material, however, has some unique features.

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor of Philosophy
Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor of Philosophy

Stem cell researchers process not only data from human material. The material itself is “processed” and sometimes transplanted to research participants. Commercializing stem cell research moreover implies that cells derived from donated human tissue appear in products on a market. A new project investigates ethical and legal issues in the development of stem cell treatments for type 1 diabetes.

Today, diabetes is treated with daily insulin injections or with insulin pump. An alternative treatment is to transplant new insulin-producing cells derived from human embryonic stem cells. The devices with transplanted cells detects blood sugar levels and regulates the secretion of insulin. Making such treatment available for diabetes patients (not only for research participants) presupposes commercialization. However, does law allow for patenting cell lines derived from human donated material? Is buying and selling such material lawful? The project is led by Mats G. Hansson, professor of biomedical ethics. The project is a collaboration between several researchers at Uppsala University: Olle Korsgren, professor of transplantation immunology, Anna-Sara Lind, associate professor of public law, Bengt Domeij, professor of private law, Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist, deputy senior lecturer in medical ethics and Pär Segerdahl, associate professor of philosophy.

One issue concerns research participants’ right to withdraw their consent at any time. Does that right imply that transplanted cells must be removed from research participants if the embryo donor withdraws consent? Moreover, assuming that researchers share stem cell lines with companies, are these companies willing to invest in the development of stem cell products if embryo donors may withdraw their consent at any time?

Another difficulty is the purpose to which embryo donors are asked to consent. According to Swedish law, human embryos can be donated only for research purposes (or to other IVF patients). Yet, medical research loses its meaning if results cannot be commercialized. It is important to inform donors about this broader context of embryo donation. Does that imply that the consent becomes broader than has support in the law? Or is there support since the embryos are not used in product development, only derived material?

The answers to these questions probably depend on whether one can distinguish between donated embryos and cell material derived from embryos. This raises also more philosophical questions about how to view embryos, stem cell lines, matured cells, and human tissue.

By Pär Segerdahl

Note: A version of this text is also published on the Ethics Blog where it is possible to comment and discuss the content.

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