BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - Sixty leading stem cell researchers and bioethicists met in Cambridge last week to set out international ethical guidelines for embryonic stem cell research that they believe should apply regardless of national laws relating to the research.

They want to ensure that scientists who come from a country where the research is banned will not be penalized if they go to work in countries where it is permitted.

Attendees, who included people from 14 countries, have formed the Hinxton Group, a permanent body that will push for a standardized approach.

The group said stem cell research has the potential to dramatically increase understanding of the human body, from which may come treatments for many serious diseases.

"The moral reason to conduct stem cell and nuclear re-programming research thus comes from both the possibility of advancing knowledge and the values of relieving suffering and promoting human welfare," the group said in a consensus statement.

While it is prepared to acknowledge the reality of cultural diversity and moral disagreement about elements of the field, the group claimed that legal differences are preventing some scientists from doing stem cell research, and hindering global collaboration.

The consensus statement listed 18 principles that should govern the ethical and legal regulation and oversight of stem cell-related research and its clinical applications.

Those include stating there should be no attempt to discriminate against or restrict the freedoms of scientists in countries with restrictive laws who want to travel to work in countries where embryonic stem cell research is allowed.

"Scientists should be free to participate in that research without fear of being liable to prosecution, restriction or discrimination in another jurisdiction," the statement read.

Another key principle is that as a rare resource, any embryonic stem cell lines that are generated should be submitted to national or international repositories, to make them generally available.

In an attempt to head off any repetition of the faked and unethical South Korean stem cell research, the group suggested that journals should require authors to demonstrate they have complied with ethical good practice in generating stem cell lines and that their work is approved by all the appropriate ethics and oversight committees.

While many of the ethical issues raised by stem cell research can be adequately addressed by existing international rules governing research on humans, the field is about to move into uncharted waters. Examples include the possibility of deriving gametes from human embryonic stem cells, and the generation of non-human/human chimeras.

"It is imperative that international efforts to address these new issues be initiated as soon as possible in order to ensure that science proceeds in an ethically acceptable fashion," the Hinxton Group said, "and to reduce the likelihood that diversity in international response will result in obstacles to ethical conduct similar to those raised by existing national policies."

The group is funded by a number of bodies including the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation; the Phoebe R. Berman Bioethics Institute; Johns Hopkins University; the UK research charity, the Wellcome Trust; and the British Embassy in Washington, D.C.

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