Scotland's stem cell deal with China alarms Catholic Church

Edinburgh, UK - The Roman Catholic Church has expressed its alarm at the prospect of Scottish scientists forging close links with embryonic stem cell researchers in China.

Alex Salmond, the First Minister, will today in China give his blessing to a collaboration between Edinburgh University’s Centre for Regenerative Medicine (CRM) and a research centre at Beijing University that specialises in embryonic stem cells. Sir Ian Wilmut, creator of Dolly the Sheep, will sign the collaboration on behalf of the CRM.

A Church spokesman said: “If Scottish scientists and funding help that type of work to be carried out, it is very alarming. It is unethical and to date unsuccessful. It is disappointing if Scottish scientists and the Scottish Government are involved in any way in encouraging this type of work.”

The Church is strongly opposed to research using stem cells from human embryos but has no objection to such research being carried out on adult stem cells.

Its comments threaten to mar the final day of Mr Salmond’s week-long tour of China and could possibly put a strain on its relationship with him.

Mr Salmond had been keen to strengthen ties with the Church in Scotland and has so far managed to avoid upsetting it. Yesterday his spokesman played down suggestions of any controversy, pointing out that the collaboration on stem cell research was general in nature. “This is about scientists in Scotland and China working together to help fund cures for some of the most serious diseases of our age. It is not about a specific project,” he said.

He refused to be drawn on the Church’s position but he said that scientists were moving away from using embryonic stem cell research.

“It is for Edinburgh University to set out the detail but any work will be undertaken in accordance with the UK’s regulatory framework and ethical standards.”

Sir Ian said last night that the exact nature of the work to be carried out by the Edinburgh and Beijing teams had yet to be agreed.

“The projects to be carried out in this collaboration have not yet been agreed, nor will this be settled for another year or so. Collaboration is strongest and most productive if it is built by the people who actually carry out the research.

“In order to help this to happen we plan to bring a group of Chinese researchers to Edinburgh next autumn and then for some of our colleagues from Scotland to go to Beijing. Each person will present a paper on their research and have the opportunity to learn about research done by our partners. Only then will it be possible for people to put forward proposals for collaborative research.”

The University of Beijing’s Stem Cell Research Centre says that its primary focus is on investigating the “molecular mechanism for the regulation of self-renewal of embryonic stem cells and to eventually establish human embryonic germ cell lines and stem cell banks”.

Scientists at the CRM recently paved the way for stem cells made from skin cells to be safely transplanted into humans — by overcoming one of the main health risks associated with previous techniques. They said that their discovery could ultimately spell an end to the need for human embryos as a source of stem cells.