By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Staff Reporter
STEM CELL research and therapy has the potential to jump start a more than $100 million medical tourism industry, according to the government’s task force, which delivered its verdict on the country’s proposed plunge into the controversial science yesterday.
In a presentation to Minister of Health Dr Perry Gomez, the group outlawed the use of embryonic cells to create new stem cells and reproductive cloning, and gave recommendations on how the country could maximise its potential to advance global medical research.
Stating the therapy’s profound implications, the committee called for an overhaul of existing legislation concerning medical tourism, and widespread education and consultation to ensure that decision makers are well-versed with the importance of the groundbreaking science and related ethical
Dr Arthur Porter, who led the special research team, said: “We put together the framework for stem cell work to be carried out to the benefit of Bahamians in an ethical way and to support the potential for a medical tourism industry, and we delved into the specifics of what can be done and what should not be done.”
“What we don’t want to do is make it an open season for anybody who wants to do anything. What we want to do is we want to have that reputable high class science and therapy can be done here under the right sort of regulations and the right sort of ethics control because not only are you controlling it for the jurisdiction and the reputation of the jurisdiction also frankly the sophisticated person won’t go to a place that is uncertain so it’s much better that we start off right the first time.”
Dr Gomez announced the task force last month, giving the panel of experts 60 days to study stem cell research from an ethical and medical point of view before delivering a final report.
Task force members include: Dr Robin Roberts, Rev Angela Palacious, Dr Paul Ward, Dr Barrett McCartney, Dr Indira Martin, Dr Wesley Francis, Dr Glen Beneby, Dr Duane Sands and Mrs Michelle Pindling-Sands.
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that have the capacity to renew themselves and to differentiate into various cell types – such as blood, muscle, and nerve cells. Stem cells are divided into two categories – embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.
Dr Porter said: “Probably the most challenging ethical reasons [against the use of embryonic cells] are around the disruption of a blastocyst to create new stem cell lines, that was something that we felt as a group was difficult for us to overcome especially within this jurisdiction, and within the religious issues that we have here.”
“However, existing stem cell lines that may have been generated elsewhere over time that under the right conditions and the right ethical supervision should be allowed but again the creation of new stem cell lines in this country should not be permitted.”
A blastocyst is an embryo that has developed for five to six days after fertilisation. The committee approved the use of adult stem cells, said Dr Porter, who also noted that this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded for discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent, which characterizes the potential of a cell to differentiate into different cells.
Dr Porter said: “The second and perhaps more scientifically practical is that people are moving away from embryonic stem cells and in fact much of the research now is on adult stem cells or adult stem cells which are being transformed to be able to act in ways pluripotent stem cells can.”
“The needs to go back and take stem cells out of an embryo are becoming less and less. What we looked at for The Bahamas is to be future ready, to not look to what other countries have done but let’s create an environment so that we can capture the future.
He added: “We believe over the next ten years that we are going to see a renaissance in the use of this therapy and that we are always going to have to be looking forward and asking ourselves the question: ‘Is this new development okay?’ ‘is that new development all right?’”
The committee also approved the use of umbilical cord blood, which Dr Porter said has been used globally for over 15 years, and the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer, which is a type of technique in which adult stem cells are encouraged to behave as early stem cells.
Dr Porter said: “We are on the frontiers of new science so the appropriate clinical trials, the appropriate committees, the appropriate ethics support, should be given to the use of these areas.”
“The purveyors of stem cell work, the medical practitioners, research scientists, foster the skills necessary to perform good clinical trials. It is important whenever new therapies are introduced that we have the right practitioners, the right scientists, and the right facilities to be able to ensure quality use,” he said
According to Dr Porter, the group predicts a renaissance in use of stem cell therapy over the next ten years.
Noting that medical tourism was a “several billion” dollar industry, Dr Porter said the Bahamas’ market could earn more than a hundred million dollars per year. He also noted trickle down benefits for physicians, labs and the wider economy.
Dr Sands said: “This is a rapidly developing, rapidly evolving field, there are many countries in the world that have embraced medical tourism and as such have tried desperately to ensure that the process of approval, of ratification, of consideration of new projects, is done in a timely fashion. Similarly efforts have been made to ensure that phenomenal scrutiny of the proposed projects, the participants et cetera, is carefully done.”
He added: “So we need to ensure that the legislation in The Bahamas is robust enough to protect the integrity and reputation of this country, while at the same time promoting good science and this is an ongoing process so we need to make sure that the laws are constantly keeping up with what is happening on the ground.”
Dr Gomez said he plans to present the stem cell report to Cabinet early next year. He added that the report will affect possible future legislation and the development of guidelines for the use of stem cell therapy in the country.