Burke and Hare show us the way in stem cell debate

Core Values by John Blundell

GEORGE Soros, a man whose judgment many respect, is one of many who are unhappy about the evolving market in human tissues. He feels it reduces us to commodities.

It is described by some as “the new cannibalism”. It is macabre. It can seem alarming. It can also seem offensive.

There are corners to this new trade that I would not wish to be associated with in any way. Yet there is another perspective. It is a wonderful and benign fact that, after our death, our corneas or kidneys can bring sight or health to those still living. A loving father or brother donating a liver is admired as volunteering an act of affection and generosity. All these topics are accelerating as medical expertise advances and the understanding of tissue compatibility becomes more refined. Organ donation feels different when the giver and the recipient are strangers – and will never meet.

The huge leap that we know now is on the horizon is the adoption of the near miraculous stem cells to create new organs from the patients themselves.

My suspicion is that President Bush’s veto – the only one he has enacted in his presidency – of any Federal funding for future stem cell research will prove to be both a bonus as well as an emblem of stupidity. It is only US government-funded laboratories that will desist from this new corner of science. Bush cannot deter private researchers. Nor can the US government, mighty entity that it is, censor development in the UK or in any other nation.

I see the silly gesture of banning scientific efforts out of some atavistic fear of religious sensibilities as offering a huge commercial opportunity for British business. This is not to deny there are ethical dilemmas to be resolved. We are all on a learning curve which may take us in unimagined directions.

When Edward Jenner started injecting against smallpox in the 18th century he was regarded as evil or deranged. Yet his innovation reduced misery for millions and opened other doors for medicine. It is not easy to think of any major medical advance that has not encountered horror from divines or inertia from that highly conservative force – the medics themselves.

A market in human tissues seems to be a near perfect cameo of text book economics. If vendors are to agree with buyers they need to agree a price. Prices tend to be set by intermediaries – or market makers – who can filter for quality, type, health and accessibility, propinquity. They have expertise and knowledge which allows values to be created … they in turn are subjective and fluid in terms of supply and demand.

Argue this of cocoa beans or planks of wood or ingots of steel and few dissent. Argue it for human organs, or stem cell cultured “new” organs, and you risk offending deep prejudices about the sanctity of the body and the integrity of those trying to operate this still very experimental market.

At one end of the spectrum is the donation of blood. I have not detected anybody arguing that this should be suppressed. You do encounter heated arguments opposed to those with rare blood types being paid a premium. I do not dismiss the altruistic notion that gifting blood leaves you with a small glow of civic virtue – in exchange for the modest compensation of a cup of tea and a bourbon biscuit. Register though that this increasingly sophisticated blood market has to be paid for. The blood has to be analysed, assessed, stored and transported. The donor is only a tiny part of the trade.

This is a more important point than is widely understood. The medical professions have a deep hostility to market pricing. Professor Milton Friedman has written discerningly about how clinicians prefer over-regulation and over-training. They profit from creating illusory shortages in medical expertise. It keeps the price protected.