"With this program we want to stimulate Dutch research on pluripotent stam cells. After all, knowledge is one of the most important exchange products nowadays, also in economic sense."
Ethical and social issues
The programme will be implemented within the legal framework that currently exists in the Netherlands, the key legislation in this context being the Embryo Act. However, the development of human embryo models from iPSCs is still at a fundamental stage, which means that certain moral issues still have to be explored. ‘We expect objections similar to those raised against the use of residual embryos from IVF procedures in scientific research,’ says Van Leeuwen, ‘so we will start with research proposals for ethical studies in this research line.’
To prevent projects from producing innovations that later meet with social or moral opposition, researchers in the ZonMw programme will have to consider these aspects from the very beginning. ‘Sometimes, in the past, scientists would come up with discoveries in the laboratory and publish them, and then society would have to decide what to do with them. We therefore only want to fund multidisciplinary research groups which include social scientists as well as biomedical scientists’, Van Leeuwen explains. He says it is not justified that more fundamental scientists see social and ethical issues as an obstacle for research. ‘The strength of this programme lies precisely in the fact that social acceptability will be considered. You need it to be able to take the next steps.’
The programme committee includes stem cell researchers, embryologists, and paediatricians and other medical professionals, and it is chaired by an expert in medical ethics. ‘I find this type of research interesting in both scientific and philosophical terms’, says Van Leeuwen. ‘I’ve explored it in a number of contexts before and I really look forward to participate in this research programme after my retirement. I hope to act as a connector. In the end, I hope that the programme can contribute to a positive social impact of the research with pluripotent stem cells.’