Marlowe's Shade

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

"Guilt-Free" Pluripotent Adult Stem Cells?

From The Washington Times

Nigel Cameron, who also has a bio-ethics blog on the Christianity Today site called Life Matters, cites breakthroughs in stem cell research to create embryonic-like stem cells that would be pluripotent, but could be reproduced from ordinary cells. There is an ethical catch though.

The current fight is about whether to use federal dollars to fund experiments using "spare" embryos from in vitro clinics. There is no federal law preventing researchers from using these embryos with private funding. The president has promised to veto a bill that would overturn his compromise and force taxpayers to fund using human embryos for medical research despite their belief it is a grave wrong. The bill narrowly passed in the House and awaits Senate action. But even if it passes the Senate, the votes to override a presidential veto aren't there.

That's one reason there is so much interest in "alternative" ways of getting embryonic-type or "pluripotent" stem cells (cells that can become any type of tissue in the body) -- ways that don't involve destroying embryos.

The president's Council on Bioethics recently suggested several options. One would use cells from embryos that have died naturally. Another would focus on a procedure fusing an adult cell, such as a skin cell, with an egg cell after reprogramming the genes of one or both cells. The result would be "embryonic-type stem cells" produced without an embryo -- no embryos would be created, and none destroyed. These stem cells could generate new cell lines for research, without raising the emotive moral issue of destroying tiny human embryos.

This method, and others being tested, would give scientists exactly the kind of stem cells they prize the most -- cells whose genetic make-up they can control -- and undermine the claim we "must have" so-called "therapeutic" cloning.

While we don't know these options will work, there are promising indications they will. These methods should be explored -- in the traditional way science works, using animals models first. The Senate is considering a bill to do just that.

Yury Verlinsky of the Reproductive Genetics Institute claims he has already created embryonic-type stem cells by fusing existing stem cells with ordinary cells and has applied for a patent. Similarly, Kevin Eggan of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute has announced his lab fused a human embryonic stem cell to an adult skin cell, causing the skin cell to begin behaving like a youthful, embryonic stem cell. While this method requires using existing stem cells, which could be taken from the already existing "Bush" lines, other promising methods would not.

The ethical dilemma is this: we can undercut the drive for cloning by using this method. But to establish a line it does require sacrificing an single embryo. This reminds me of Dostoevsky's famous question from The Brothers Karamazov. The tortured intellectual Ivan asks if the happiness of the whole world depended on a life time of suffering of an innocent child, would it be justified? Secular ethicists who ascribe to the utilitarian model would say yes. Politically this compromise would be irresistible.

There is also the proposition of stem cells that died a natural death. Is that realistic? It would probably be a fraction of the limited number already available. I doubt long-term this would be enough for practical purposes.

These options are not guilt-free as Nigel Cameron suggests. My view is that they undercut the argument of the value of life. By agreeing to this devil's bargain to give our opponents a temporary setback, I think we yield a lot more of our ethical high ground than we can afford. In fact, we become accomplices to the Culture of Death.
papijoe 4:01 PM