Stem cells and reproductive technologies: who’s responsible?

Stem cell therapies and reproductive technologies have changed the world, but these advances have come with a range of highly complex legal, ethical and social justice questions. In our ever-changing globalised and commercialised society, how do we regulate, facilitate and sometimes prohibit medical research and patient treatments?

Western Sydney University’s leading legal and medical experts have come together for a cross-disciplinary event – Stem Cells and Reproductive Technologies: Challenges and Opportunities – to explore these issues.

According to Dr Michael O’Connor from the School of Medicine we are moving into a new era of stem cell research, where the possibilities for treatment of degenerative, chronic and/or fatal diseases and injuries are primed for clinical trial.

“Misconceptions of stem cell potential and applications can leave patients vulnerable to the influences of profit driven entities, selling unproven treatments without solid scientific basis or appropriate clinical testing or follow up,” Dr O’Connor says.

Dr O’Connor – whose research has included a review of the clinical translation of emerging stem cell therapies – says we must aim for maximal patient benefit without simply ‘selling hope’.

Hope can sometimes lead patients to ‘stem cell tourism’, a serious problem and an area that needs to be regulated according to Dr Patrick Foong from the School of Law.

“Stem cell tourism is where patients, especially the very ill, who live in countries where stem-cell-based medical treatments are not available, travel to other countries to seek such therapies. There have been reports of baseless claims of cures, charlatans and adverse medical events including deaths,” Dr Foong says. 

“These treatments are at the experimental stage and most are unregulated. Some of the medical clinics offering these therapies are even supported by their local government, regulatory agencies and medical associations.”

Dr Foong says stem cell tourism is important to the economies of some developing countries, which may thus be resistant to prohibitions by law.  

“While stem cell tourism is a challenging area that to date has appeared to be irresolvable, local regulators in all jurisdictions still need to set up an effective national regulatory framework for regulating HESC research within the country,” he says.  

Cross border travel for those seeking reproductive assistance and therapies also raises multiple ethical, legal and social issues according to Dr Cressida Limon from the School of Law.

“Despite numerous public inquiries that have raised concerns about gaps and inconsistencies in the current legal framework there seems to be little political will or interest in addressing the issues,” Dr Limon says. 

“Politicians say they are concerned about the risks of exploitation of women and children but stick with the status quo. It makes you wonder about the politics of cross border travel for reproductive assistance and why nothing changes.”


27 October 2017

Emma Sandham, Senior Media Officer

Dr Michael O’Connor, Dr Patrick Foong and Dr Cressida Limon are presenting at Stem Cells and Reproductive Technologies: Challenges and Opportunities on Friday, 27 October: 6pm – 7:30pm, Peter Shergold Building 169 Macquarie Street, Parramatta Level 9, Conference Room 4