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Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research in the Islamic Republic of Iran – a paradox?

9 Feb, 2012

In the latest of our shortlisted entries to the 2011 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, Zain Syed explains the state of stem cell research in Iran.

In 2006, praises of Allah and the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) erupted from a delivery room at the Royan Research Centre in the Iranian city of Isfahan to celebrate the successful birth of the Middle East’s first cloned sheep, Royana1. The story of how this, among many other achievements in the field of embryonic stem cell research, has taken place in a country governed by orthodox Shariah law is quite extraordinary.

History saw a time when the Persian empire was the pinnacle of scientific advancement. However in 1979, a revolution led by Ayatollah Sayed Ruhollah Khomeini against western- backed Shah Pahlavi resulted in a significant ‘brain drain’ – the emigration of highly trained individual. Yet in 2003, men and women at the Royan Institute in Tehran celebrated making Iran the 10th country in the world to have successfully established a human Embryonic Stem Cell (ESC) line, named ‘Royan H1’ – how did they get away with this?

The answer is simple: they didn’t have to. In 2002, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, openly supported human ESC research in issuing the ‘stem cell fatwa’, an official declaration that Shiite Islam is not only consistent with, but encourages human ESC technology for therapeutic uses2.

Ayatollah Ahmed Mubaligh, an influential cleric residing in the city of Qum, Iran’s centre of Islamic learning, explained that, “At one point in its development, the soul enters the embryo and is considered a living human being … we don’t consider elimination of the undifferentiated embryonic cell as murder; there is nothing but a possibility of these cells to develop into a human being.”2 Essentially, a line is being drawn here between potential and actual life. Most Shiite jurists agree that ensoulment occurs at 120 days post fertilisation, as highlighted by the Qur’an and the hadith1.

Does Iranian society therefore only have a duty to respect and protect the rights of a foetus after 120 days post-fertilisation? The majority of Iranian jurists clarify that the soulless embryo still deserves respect, though to a lesser degree. This is exemplified by the fact that the legal punishment for an unlawful abortion before 120 days is less severe than one after3.

Ironically, while Iranian scientists were celebrating their success in 2003, U.S. scientists were calling for a lift on the ban of state funding for new human ESC research imposed by former President George W. Bush in 20014. As a result, ESC research in the US during this time took place primarily in the private sector. This veto has since been revoked by President Obama5. Hassan Ashktorab of Howard University Cancer Centre, Washington DC commented that, “Policies that may be classified as liberal in the American political system seem to be common sense to Iranian politicians.”6

Ethical guidelines issued by the Iranian Ministry of Health and Education specify that only embryos less than 14 days old left over from IVF treatment are to be used for research, which must ultimately be destroyed. The law prohibits both the production of human-animal hybrid embryos and the misuse of genetic screening for eugenic purposes7. These regulations are in line with western regulatory measures.

Potentially, Human ESC research has tremendous scope for improving treatments for diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes or spinal cord injuries. This is recognised in Iran at the highest level; in the words of Ayatollah Mubaligh, “If we don’t benefit from stem cell research, then we have a humanitarian problem.”

In 2005, scientists at the Royan Institute severed the spinal cord of a mouse, paralysing its lower body. The mouse then received an injection of human ESCs, which resulted in partial movement of the legs after six days and a full restoration of movement after 28 days. This put Iran among just five countries to have successfully carried out this experiment2.

Despite enthusiasm among the latest batch of budding scientists being produced by Iranian universities, religious justification and support from the state at the highest level, scientific advancement is still hindered. International sanctions have prevented Iranian laboratories from buying US-manufactured resources and equipment, as many US companies have been banned from selling to Iran by the US treasury over fears that such materials could be harnessed for nuclear technology2.

It seems then that human ESC research, like many fields of modern science, is encouraged in Iranian society. Contrary to western perceptions, this does not clash with its Islamic doctrine. Although many believe that science and religion have conflicting interests, perhaps the two have always been reflections of a universal goal to achieve physical, social, intellectual and spiritual prosperity.

Zain Syed

This is an edited version of Zain’s original essay. Views expressed are the author’s own.

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize in association with the Guardian and the Observer and read our ‘How I write about science‘ series of tips for aspiring science writers.

Over the coming months, we’re publishing the shortlisted essays in this year’s inaugural competition.

1. M Saniei, R DeVries. Embryonic Stem Cell Research in Iran: status and ethics. Indian J Med Ethics (2008) Oct-Dec;5(4).

2. FRONTLINE WORLD Iran: the Stem Cell Fatwa, science and religion’s unlikely union (2009).

3. B Larijani, F Zahedi. Changing parameters for abortion in Iran. Indian J Med Ethics (2006) Oct-Dec;3(4).

4. Q & A: US stem cell debate. BBC News 9th March 2009.

5. Obama ends stem cell funding ban. BBC News 9th March 2009.

6. Iran at the forefront of medical research. The Washington Times 14th April 2009.

7. F Zahedi, B Larijani. National bioethical legislation and guidelines for biomedical research in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Bulletin of the World Health Organization (2008) 86:630–63.

Image Credit: Wellcome Images
One Comment leave one →
  1. 6 May, 2015 1:09 am

    Excellent blog post. I definitely appreciate this site. Keep it up!

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