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Mapping the social effects of stem cell techn -

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ELEANOR HALL: Scientific developments like stem cell research have sparked emotional debates around
the world, including in Australia.

Now in Britain where scientists have one of the least restrictive environments in which to
research, the Government is providing funds to map the social effects of major changes in medical
technology.

Prof Andrew Webster is the coordinator of the Economic and Social Research Council which advises
the British Government on stem cell research in society.

He is now in Australia and will give a public lecture at Sydney University tonight about his work.
Earlier today he joined me in the World Today studio.

Andrew Webster, medical science has changed dramatically in recent years. We now not only have
organ transplants but face transplants; Britain has recently overturned the ban on the creation of
animal-human hybrid embryos. Cloning is possible.

What to you have been the most astounding developments?

ANDREW WEBSTER: I think there are two particularly important developments that are going to shape
the future of this field. One as you've just mentioned is the agreement in the UK to license
research, and it's quite a contested debate in the Houses of Parliament I must say, on animal-human
hybrids.

When that is fully licensed next year, that will change the field quite dramatically. It will lead
to a lot more companies becoming involved because they're not, as it were, tainted by their
concerns over embryonic stem cells science, and it will lead to a new gold rush I think in some
sense in this particular field.

The other main development has been something rather different from that, and that's the arrival of
something called induced pluripotent stem cells. Now these are cells that are actually taken from
the body, like a skin cell from adults, and they can be genetically reprogrammed to be
embryonic-like, as it were, and yet provide the sort of pluripotency that embryos have had.

ELEANOR HALL: So in terms of the science and what's possible, what do you think we'll see in the
next couple of decades as a result of these developments?

ANDREW WEBSTER: Well I think there's a lot of hype around the area. One of the issues I'm going to
be talking about later on today in a public lecture at the university is what lessons we can learn
from what has been something like 30 or 40 years of tissue engineering, which has been around for a
long time.

And so I think we have to be very careful about saying there's a whole new, revolutionary period
ahead with stem cells, embryonic stem cells. I think in many ways what's going to happen is going
to be much more modest, so that stem cells will be used for trialling or testing out toxicity of
drugs, for example.

So stem cells are going to be I think much more of a service field for medicine than they are going
to be in terms of radical breakthroughs. But that's to be seen.

ELEANOR HALL: Well many of these medical technologies are hugely controversial. Stem cell research
here in Australia created huge debate. But the debate tends to be about the ethics of the science.

Should we also be looking more closely at the social effects of these developments?

ANDREW WEBSTER: Exactly, I'm glad you said that because although it's a great field, bio-ethics is
not what we do in the work I'm doing in the UK.

I direct this National Economic and Social Research Council funded program, a very large program,
three-and-a-half-million pound program. And the question that we're asking is: yes there are these
amazing, radical changes in the field of stem cell science in what's sometimes generally called
regenerative medicine, but what's the significance of that for society, for clinicians, for
policymakers, for regulators and so on?

ELEANOR HALL: So can you give us an example of an unexpected social or cultural change that might
be produced by a particular technology?

ANDREW WEBSTER: Well these technology stem cells are awkward objects. They break down the sorts of
normal conventions we have about for example, where does my body begin and end. Stem cell lines are
disentangled from personal bodies and they go off and do their own thing as it were in research
labs.

Now, that creates cultural changes in the way we understand our relationship between our body and
medicine and the clinic. And one of the projects for example that's just coming to an end in the
UK, I think exemplifies, illustrates this very nicely. It's a project which has been looking at
women's response to ways in which they provide aborted foetal tissue for stem cell science.

Now, when you speak to the women they have, and this is the sort of nuanced cultural aspect you
have to understand, they have complex perspectives on this. On the one hand, they're very happy to
provide the aborted foetal tissue for medical science, that's seen as a good thing, part of the
public good.

But of course when they think through the implications of that, there's a sort of sense in which
the aborted foetal tissue, as it were, is almost resurrected or given a new life as it were, as a
stem cell line. And of course the whole point about abortion was that the foetus was to be as it
were eliminated. And now in fact it's actually got a sort of a new lease of life.

So there's an ambiguity and ambivalence there. It doesn't mean to say they don't support the stem
cell science, but they acknowledge themselves, personally, that in doing so they have to wrestle
with these different types of dilemmas.

And these types of innovations I think pose these types of cultural and personal dilemmas all the
time.

ELEANOR HALL: And are governments looking carefully enough at the impact of these? What would you
like to see?

ANDREW WEBSTER: I think there are a number of lessons, if you like, from the UK context which would
be important for the Australian Government.

One of them is that they need to think about the way in which lessons from the past, from tissue
engineering which has been going for 30-odd years, provide insights in for the future, and
recognise the limitations as well as the opportunities.

The second thing is ensuring, and I think the evidence from the Australian respondents to this
consultation shows this, the need for stronger links between clinicians on the ground, those who
are going to make this work in the clinic, and the lab.

If you don't have those links, and quite often tissue engineering in the past didn't have good
links, the thing falls off the edge of a cliff.

ELEANOR HALL: Is the pace of change in science outstripping our ability, socially, to adjust to it?

ANDREW WEBSTER: Well I think we always adjust to it and I wouldn't want to see it as a sort of
linear process in the sense that science dictates how things happen.

So we don't really, it's not a question that we don't respond, we do respond and we cope with it in
different sorts of ways. And you go from country A to country B, you find different ways of coping
with it.

ELEANOR HALL: Are people though looking broadly enough? I'm thinking earlier this year in Britain
an embryo was created with three parents.

You know, great for parents with genetic diseases who otherwise wouldn't be able to have children,
but would you be raising some issues about the social impact of a technology like this if it were
to become widely used?

ANDREW WEBSTER: Well yes. I mean the social impact of that is one that in a sense enables new types
of family structures to actually be possible.

This type of development changes family relationships in significant ways. Expectations about
responsibility, questions about legitimacy, questions about legal rights too.

So there are many people working on, if you like, the reproductive aspects of this particular field
to explore those types of social issues.

ELEANOR HALL: And that's Prof Andrew Webster from Britain's Stem Cell Social Research Council.
He'll be speaking at Sydney University this evening.