Professor Robert Winston, pioneer of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, TV celebrity, professor of fertility studies at Imperial College London, doyen of British science, and peer of the realm, is well-known as a pain in the proverbial. Writing in the Guardian, he thundered recently that there was little need for regulation of IVF in the UK and decried the need for fertility clinics to consider the welfare of the child” before treating patients. Clearly Lord Winston is not a cuddly mascot of critics of the IVF industry or right-to-life” groups.
However, his Lordship is an equal-opportunity pain in the proverbial. This week he played porcupine and stuck quills into the fashion for embryonic stem cell research. In his presidential address at the British Association’s Science Festival in Dublin, he warned that exaggerated claims by some scientists could spike their guns: “The study of stem cells is one of the most exciting areas in biology but I think it is unlikely that embryonic stem cells are likely to be useful in health care for a long time. But… some parliamentarians were clearly led to believe that a major clinical application was just around the corner. When disappointment sets in, as may be possible, we can expect a massive backlash by the ‘right to life’ groups who are always so ready to pounce when they perceive a chink in our arguments.”
He outlined a number of obstacles which will make research progress slow: the slow replication of stem cells in the laboratory and the possibility of rogue cells becoming cancerous. He views “the current wave of optimism” about embryonic stem cells and their use in transplant treatments with “growing scepticism”. Dr Stephen Minger, director of King’s College London Stem Cell Biology Laboratory, responded that “I can’t think of any instances where stem cell scientists are over-hyping their findings.”
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