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Views & Reviews

Can a cell have a soul?

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: (Published 15 May 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:1132
  1. John Burn, professor of clinical genetics, Newcastle University
  1. john.burn{at}

The current UK parliamentary debate on amendments to the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (BMJ 2008:336;1089 doi: 10.1136/bmj.39581.373403.DB) has brought to the fore once again the challenging debate between those who argue that all research involving embryonic stem cells is immoral and those who see immense medical potential in this area of research. As a clinical geneticist raised in the Christian tradition and interested in gene hunting and cancer chemoprevention I can claim to offer a dispassionate opinion. As head of the research institute where some of the most controversial work is under way, and having been a signatory to Liam Donaldson’s report that recommended that this research should proceed,1 I must declare an interest.

Three aspects of stem cell research in which my Newcastle colleagues have special interest are mitochondrial transplantation, in vitro gamete development, and human admixed embryos. In all cases, legitimate clinical targets may be presented as a powerful argument in favour of avoiding blanket legal barriers. Counter-arguments combine anxiety about misuse of funds, threats to the structure of the family, and the dangers of cross species transfer …

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