Stem cell research in Hungary

Experts believe over two billion people suffer from diseases that may eventually be treated - or even cured - with stem cells. These include heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. But research in this field is often impeded by ethical concerns. Sandor Laczko of Radio Budapest looks at the situation in Hungary:

Stem cell research in Hungary is not an issue the general public is concerned about. The only difference of opinion is - not surprisingly - between the approach of most scientists and that of the Catholic Church. Legislation on this field in this country is quite permissive as you can hear from Laszlo Bito, a Hungarian professor emeritus at the Columbia University in the United States:

"It's probably in the middle of the range of the United States where every state has different laws. In Hungary, there are no specific things about what researchers can do."

When the issue of stem cell research comes up in Hungarian intellectual circles, the debate is usually about whether it is a scientific or a moral issue. Immunologist research professor Balazs Sarkadi, who was appointed by the Bench of Hungarian Catholic Bishops to talk about this matter, had this to say:

"It's mostly a scientific issue because we need new technologies and new methods and it will be a major part of the medical treatment. But, of course, - at the same time - it is also a moral issue, especially because of embryonic stem cells. The Catholic Church recognises the fertilised egg as a human being. After the first divisions, it's already a human being - in the view of the Catholic Church.

So, the Catholic Church opposes research on embryonic stem cells because those cells are considered to constitute a human being. Professor Bito, a widely recognised physiologist by profession, does not share this view:

"Personally, I have the belief that becoming human is a slow process, and that fertilisation is just one step, implantation is another step, just as the development of the placenta is. But the main step is when they take the first breath of air, because that first breath of air is when the circulation changes from a parasitic kind of circulation to a free-living, free-breathing human being."

While sticking to the Catholic moral point that research on embryonic stem cells is wrong, strangely enough, Professor Balazs Sarkadi acknowledges that his institute does carry out research on cells derived from embryos.

"There is some research like in our institute but we are using already prepared embryonic stem cell lines - there is no real ethical concern there."

So Professor Sarkadi seems to be arguing that stem cell research is acceptable as long as the removal of the cell from embryos is done by somebody else. One final aspect of the Hungarian debate about stem cell research comes from a linguistic peculiarity of the Hungarian language itself. Professor Bito explains:

"One interesting aspect that's different in Hungary is the name of the stem cell. We call it "ossejt", the 'os' prefix means 'ancient', 'old'. For example, "oserdo" is 'ancient forest'. So, that word 'ossejt' has a very different connotation, and is a little bit mystical, while 'stem cell' is good and straightforward. 'Ossejt' sounds like it came from Adam and Eve or something of that sort."