B (Applicant, acting as litigation in person) – and – D (by his litigation friend, the Official Solicitor) (1) The Ministry of Defence (2)  EWCOP 15 Respondents – read judgement
Stem cell therapy has been very much in the news recently, as doctors have saved the life of a seven year old boy with a genetic disorder that caused the top layer of his skin to blister and flake away. After years of struggling with this painful and dangerous disease – antibiotics, bandages and even skin transplants were to no avail – the boy was on the point of death from bacterial infection. The skin contains its own supply of specialised stem cells, which allows the epidermis to be constantly renewed throughout our lives, with cells turning over roughly every month. This also allows scientists to grow grafts in culture, simply by taking a small sample. Specialists in Germany cultured centimetre wide pieces of his skin and engineered this tissue to accept the correct gene through viral transfer. The healthy patch of skin was then grown in the laboratory until enough of it was ready to be grafted back on to the boy’s body. Ultimately the team was able to replace 80% of the child’s skin. He is now understood to be leading a normal life at school, playing soccer and generally not displaying any of the dangerous side effects of gene therapy.
The relevance of this success story to this Court of Protection case will soon become obvious. In this hearing Baker J, deciding the best interests of D, a young man severely brain damaged after being assaulted by another soldier, had to determine whether his strongly held desire to travel to Serbia for stem cell treatment should prevail over the medical opposition to such a step. This was not a case of scarce allocation of public resources as D had the money from his compensation award to spend on this treatment.
His mother, who’d devoted herself to his care whilst he was in hospital, wanted clearance to take him to the clinic in Belgrade. He was, in her words, “heavily disabled, still young, and very depressed about his condition”. She did not think that her son should receive rehabilitation for the rest of his life. Baker J drew up a balance sheet of the drawbacks to this experimental treatment with its risks against the benefits to D in respecting his autonomy.
You can hear Rosalind English discussing this fascinating and humane judgment by Baker J in Episode 16 of Law Pod Uk, freely available for download from iTunes. For those with Samsung and other smartphones, the Audioboom app is your source for Law Pod UK.