Beware of Stem-cell Foes Putting Scientific Method Under Microscope

By Arthur Caplan and David Magnus

Published October 21, 2005, issue of October 21, 2005.
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It is often said that science is racing far ahead of our ethics. But bending science to try and meet ethical concerns is not the way to catch up. That is exactly what happened recently when two articles appeared in the prestigious British scientific journal Nature, touting “alternative” approaches to finding sources of stem cells for embryonic stem cell research.

The articles suggested that there may be ways to disable an embryo or to remove a cell from them at early stages of development and create embryonic stem cells. The driving force behind these papers was not science. Rather the scientists involved advanced these approaches hoping that they might prove less ethically controversial than other ways of getting embryonic stem cells that involve using already existing ones left over at fertility clinics or cloning them.

The articles are wrong. The approaches suggested by the scientists are fraught with ethical problems that will trigger the same response as current ideas do about the destruction of embryos.

Worse still, by trying to find technical fixes to what are essentially moral disagreements, the scientists give the impression that it is immoral to use leftover embryos or cloned embryos in research. And they also risk leaving those suffering from diabetes, paralysis, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other diseases to their fates while critics and opponents of embryonic stem-cell research use these new articles as reasons to further delay federal and state funding. The attention showered upon these articles in the media and by some politicians who oppose embryonic stem-cell research is a very dangerous development for anyone who is interested in doing embryonic stem-cell research or benefiting from it.

What did the papers say? One group of researchers has shown that it is possible to derive embryonic stem cells in mice by removing a single cell from an embryo at an early stage of development. This process, which is very similar to something routinely done in pre-implantation diagnosis at infertility clinics to look for hereditary diseases, allows the original embryo to continue its process of development and potentially produce a child.

The second technique genetically altered mice embryos so that they no longer had the capacity to produce a placenta and umbilical cord, vital organs that would be necessary for embryonic growth. Since these embryos cannot develop, the argument is that embryos like these now lack the potential to develop and hence are not really entitled to the respect that some believe must be given to a human embryo.

Neither of these approaches answers the ethical objections that President Bush, some members of Congress and some religious leaders have to stem-cell research. Though unlikely, it is possible that the single cell that is separated from an embryo could have the capacity to develop on its own. But unless it is proven that these isolated embryo-like cells cannot ever develop into an independent twin of the original embryo, opponents of stem-cell research will still oppose this technique since such a cell would still be an “embryo.”

And it is not clear where anyone would get embryos to pull cells from — would it be ethical to make an embryo only in order to pull a cell off it and then freeze what is left? It is highly unlikely that critics of stem-cell research on moral grounds would buy this technical fix.

Similarly, opponents of embryo research will simply reject the idea that intentionally disabled embryos lack humanity. If you believe that an embryo is a person from creation, then making disabled embryos will not silence your criticism.

What is especially strange about these two papers and the media and political buzz they generated is that techniques for making embryo-like cells that lack the potential to become living persons already exist: cloning. To be fair, there is no evidence that primates can be cloned and until there is, the prospects for using cloning to make full-fledged adults are spotty at best. But the fact is that scientists in the United States and South Korea have used cloning to make embryo-like entities. By what standard do supporters of making disabled embryos or pulling a cell off of a specially created embryo find cloning to be less morally acceptable?

But there is an even bigger problem with this new push by some to find alternatives to embryonic stem-cell research. Must science proceed only if everyone in the nation agrees that the research is worth doing?

If so, no science will ever be conducted. We could never do research in evolutionary biology, since there are creationists who oppose it. We could not do research on cancer, mental illnesses or animals since each of these has its critics.

The idea that scientists should abandon embryonic stem-cell research while looking for alternatives that satisfy every critic and moral point of view is simply bad public policy.

The vast majority of Americans believes that embryonic stem-cell research should be conducted, and that embryos outside the body — which will not develop on their own and are routinely destroyed at infertility clinics — do not have the same moral status as fetuses or people and are therefore ethical sources of embryonic stem cells. There is a minority that vehemently disagrees.

But the debate has already been heard and it is time to proceed — not stall any longer, examining unproven strategies that quickly bog down in the same moral problems that have beset embryonic stem-cell research since it began.

Scientists should be clear about the principles that ought to govern research. Trying to appease a minority with scientific flimflammery, while delaying promising research that one day may lead to treatments that improve millions of lives is something that should not be done.

Ethics must guide science, but there are few ethical disputes that will yield to purely scientific fixes. Embryonic stem-cell research is not one of them.

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