Iran shows the way on genetics

Concerns with some scientific research are linked with the unease about living in a nanny state. So I would like to share with you what was, for me, a quite surprising example of the ultimate nanny state making some remarkably sensible decisions.

On a recent visit to Iran, I was allowed unrestricted access to the Royan Institute in Tehran where, by all accounts, world-class work in genetics, infertility treatment, stem cell research and animal cloning is carried out in an atmosphere of openness quite dramatically at odds with my expectations. Much of the work at the Royan is therapeutic and centred on infertility treatment. But their basic research in genetics was remarkably advanced, despite the restrictions on many of the researchers’ travel to international meetings and the difficulties in publishing their work in international journals.

What struck me most was the way the authorities overseeing the research seem to have dealt with the ethical minefields of parts of the work, in stark contrast with the howls of protest from some quarters in the UK in the run-up to the country’s new human embryo research bill that went through parliament recently.

At the Royan I spoke to one of the imams who sits on their ethics committee. He explained that every research project proposed must be justified to his committee to ensure that it does not conflict with Islamic teaching. Thus, while issues such as abortion are still restricted (it is allowed only when the mother’s life is in danger), research on human embryos is allowed.

In the UK and other western nations the Catholic church has branded research on human embryonic stem cells immoral. So I was taken aback by the Iranian imam who pointed out, quite rightly, that all that is produced in this research is just a clump of cells and not a foetus, and so what was all the fuss about?

It is these stem cells that then differentiate into the specialist cells that are used to grow healthy tissue to replace that either damaged by trauma, or compromised by disease. Among the conditions that scientists believe may eventually be treated by stem cell

therapy are Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, strokes, arthritis, diabetes, burns and spinal cord damage.

According to Islamic teaching, I discovered, the foetus becomes a full human being only when it is “ensouled” at 120 days from the moment of conception, and so the research at Royan on human embryonic stem cells is not seen as playing God, as it takes place at a much earlier stage. Thus, while there is much that the west finds unpalatable about life under Islamic rule, when it comes to genetics they are not held back by their religious doctrine.

Like a number of other developing Islamic countries, such as Malaysia, Iran’s scientific research is moving forward in leaps and bounds. I had hoped to visit one of its nuclear research facilities, but given the current political climate and Israel’s threats of military action, it was no big surprise that my film crew and I were denied access at the last minute.

Nevertheless, whatever criticisms we may have of the regime in Iran, I was left in no doubt that its researchers can hold their heads high. And the West might learn a lesson or two from them before we complain too quickly about our own nanny state. — The Guardian