Wednesday, August 23, 2006

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Can science solve the stem cell debate?

According to the Financial Times' Clive Cookson, there may be a way to end the ethical debate over stem cell research:

Scientists in the US have created human embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos, a discovery that appears to get round a basic ethical objection to stem cell research.

The breakthrough – published online on Thursday by the scientific journal Nature – could help lead to greater public funding for the field and make it more appealing for commercial investment.

Researchers from Advanced Cell Technology, a US biotech group, have generated stem cell cultures by plucking individual cells from newly fertilised embryos, which are not harmed. Stem cell production until now involved taking larger masses of cells from slightly older embryos, which are inevitably lost.

The discovery “has the potential to play a critical role in the advancement of regenerative medicine”, said Ronald Green, director of Dartmouth College’s Ethics Institute and head of ACT’s independent ethics board.

“It appears to be a way out of the political impasse in the US and elsewhere,” Prof Green added. “I see this as a real opportunity for the Bush administration to address the need for embryonic stem cell lines, while maintaining their ethical position that embryos should not be destroyed to obtain them.”

Here's a link to the actual article in Nature.

The FT article does go one to assert that,"hardline critics of embryo research – such as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops – are unlikely to accept the manipulation even of a single embryonic cell, which they say could theoretically become a human being."

Question to readers: assuming that this is a real breakthrough, will it sway a sufficient number of stem cell opponents to render the debate moot?

posted by Dan on 08.23.06 at 09:50 PM


There will be practical and ethical
questions but thoughtful people will resolve
them with controls and understanding.
Our institutions, scientific, religious,
academic and others will help us
decide whether this is an acceptable
invasion of a Natural process and whether
proper control and understanding is
safely and reasonably attainable.

posted by: Gilbert Garza on 08.23.06 at 09:50 PM [permalink]

I think it's hilarious. Now they can harvest stem cells, while preserving the life of the embryo so that it can be discarded alive later.

posted by: Anonymous on 08.23.06 at 09:50 PM [permalink]

What anonymous said.

The only difference is that the procedure is not destroying them directly.

Interesting, yes. Useful, no.

posted by: rosignol on 08.23.06 at 09:50 PM [permalink]

So more importantly, the science of this new technique won't be validated for some time.

There are already theories that there are differences in the "quality" of embryonic vs. adult stem cells in terms of potential therapeutic value, the same is likely to be true of this new technique.

Until the science is validated, which is likely more than a decade away, the debate remains.

posted by: Rick Latshaw on 08.23.06 at 09:50 PM [permalink]

I think they will require the informed consent of the embryo.

posted by: Lord on 08.23.06 at 09:50 PM [permalink]

I don't understand why the reaction here is so blase. This technique is an important step because the potential child is not harmed by it. Smarter science = better ethics; there is something wrong or stupid about this fact?

posted by: Don S on 08.23.06 at 09:50 PM [permalink]

Don S-

What you're missing: it COULD be smarter science. Its an intriguing start, but no one knows for sure.

So its premature to shut down other forms of stem cell research-- or for those who oppose it the ethical implications are the same as before.

posted by: Rick Latshaw on 08.23.06 at 09:50 PM [permalink]

One thing I would like to call more attention to is the very first sentence in Dan's excerpt:

Scientists in the US...

The point of calling attention to this is to point out that stem cell research is ongoing, even in the US. The only restriction on stem cell research in the US is that the Federal government does not fund it.

IMO, it's a tempest in a teapot.

posted by: rosignol on 08.23.06 at 09:50 PM [permalink]


The U.S. government funds approximately half of science R&D in the U.S. The overwhelming majority of that is spent on early stage research, which is where stem cell research currently is.

Pointing to a handful of researchers and biotechs that have scrapped together private funding is not the same-- stem cell research has been clearly deprioritized within the scientific realm because of lack of funds, particularly given the relative promise it holds (from a purely scientific standpoint).

So I don't agree on the "tempest in a teapot" comment-- the overall effect is that significantly fewer people are doing this research and the result will be slower and less innovative techniques.

posted by: Rick Latshaw on 08.23.06 at 09:50 PM [permalink]

This is unlikely to do much to resolve the stem cell debate, although it certainly may be interesting science with good potential. The problem is that the majority of the Cult of Embryo Worship aren't interested in the science--they have an a priori belief that a mass of cells becomes a human being at the point of conception. Combine that with a general tendency towards antiintellectualism and anti-science, and you have a voting bloc that is largely incapable of being reasoned with.

Fortunately, the vast majority of Americans are not this looney. While many of them might have ethical concerns about stem cell research, most of them--even the ones who share the notion of an embryo being a human being--are amenable to compromise and reason on the matter. Unfortunately, the ones who aren't are considerably noisier, and have a disproportionately large influence on the party in power.

posted by: Catsy on 08.23.06 at 09:50 PM [permalink]

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