In 2002 and 2003, research conducted by Lincoln University's Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit (AERU) with focus groups found out what New Zealanders think about using embryonic stem cells to treat Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer's disease destroys brain cells, leading to a loss of memory and reduced ability to learn, reason and make judgements. It also causes changes in behaviour, mood and personality. What do New Zealanders think about the use of stem cells to treat Alzheimer's disease?

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are body cells that have not yet differentiated or specialised. They can be stimulated to turn into any kind of cell, for example, new brain cells. Stem cells are found in the placenta, umbilical blood, fat tissue, bone marrow and young embryos. Embryo cells have an advantage over the other sources of stem cells because the cells have less wear and tear and are relatively easy to access. However, using embryos as the source of stem cells destroys the potential life of the embryo. The biggest potential source of embryos is from 'extra' embryos produced during fertility treatment programmes.

What do New Zealanders think?

The research found that many people have a strong reaction to this application of biotechnology.

The 117 participants seemed to have difficulty making a decision about the acceptability of this example. Some said that they found the idea of using human embryos repugnant but still thought this was acceptable biotechnology because of the value they placed on finding a treatment for Alzheimer’s. They agreed to it being acceptable but only if the technology is strictly controlled.

People were very concerned about the regulation of stem cell collection and storage. Some people were concerned that, even if this procedure was carried out ethically in New Zealand, it could be misused elsewhere. In particular, people thought it would be immoral to make money from the sale of embryonic stem cells – would this lead to embryo farming? Others saw the potential for a donor system run in much the same manner as the organ donor scheme.

Religious beliefs played a major role in people’s decisions about the acceptability of embryonic stem cell research.

To find out more about the survey and public opinion about other biotechnology applications, read the article Do New Zealanders accept biotechnology?

Useful link

The AERU report Public Understandings of Biotechnology in New Zealand: Factors Affecting Acceptability Rankings of five Selected Biotechnologies (#266) can be downloaded from the AERU publications list on the Lincoln University website, here.

Published 15 November 2007