Ian Mackenzie, Professor of Stem Cell Science at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry

Professor Mackenzie spends most of his time trying to understand stem cells, tissue renewal and cancer. We asked Professor Mackenzie to tell us his thoughts on the ethics of stem cells.

Is it justifiable to destroy an embryo to develop treatments to serious diseases or to destroy one life to help another one?

Embryos that are made by in vitro fertilisation are often destroyed because they are only a small ball of cells. I have no problem with this. So neither do I have a problem with using them for medical research.”

Does an embryo produced in the laboratory have the same status as an embryo produced naturally by sperm and egg?

“In one sense, I don’t think it matters how it got to what it is. Does a person generated by in vitro fertilisation have more or less rights than someone arising from an egg fertilised the usual way or someone generated by cloning [creation in a laboratory] even?”

Is it right to ask a woman to go through treatment to produce human eggs that are intended for use in medical research given that this procedure can often be painful?

“Regulations concerning the use of human embryonic stem cells have focused mainly on the use of surplus materials collected in association with procedures for in vitro fertilisation. Many people oppose this type of embryonic stem cell research and the proposal to collect human eggs specifically for research is likely to generate more opposition, perhaps even from those not opposed to stem cell research in principle.

“The rules concerning the research use of human tissues in general are governed by Research Ethics Committees and their primary concerns relate to a process called ‘informed consent’. This requires evidence that tissue donors are fully aware of all the risks and benefits of the donation. However, if these stringent criteria are met it is usual to allow ‘altruistic’ [selfless] donations.”