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Why Easy Stem Cells Raise Hard Ethical Questions

Zeiss Microscopy

Brendan Foht - published on 02/19/14

It is sometimes said that modern science is simply about the acquisition of power over nature, not theoretical inquiry into the nature of the world. If this were true, modern scientists would view problems whose answers will not yield new technologies—such as the question “what is an embryo?”—as vain or meaningless. But this description does not do justice to the passion for theoretical inquiry and wonder about nature that animates the work of many scientists today.

The late Carl Woese, an evolutionary microbiologist whose own important discoveries were perhaps more theoretical than practical, warned biologists in a 2004 essay that it is dangerous to allow “science to slip into the role of changing the world without trying to understand it.” Discovering a way to distinguish clusters of pluripotent cells from embryos is part of trying to understand the world. It is likely to constrain the use of new technology rather than enable scientists to “change the world,” but in a time when our biotechnological power seems to constantly outstrip our wisdom, such constraining knowledge is just what we need.

Renewing the Public Debate

Practically speaking, in the United States, the Dickey-Wicker amendment to appropriations legislation for the Department of Health and Human Services prohibits federal funding for research in which embryos are created or destroyed. The language of the law is sufficiently broad to include even such novel methods of embryo creation as those used to create STAP cells. For the National Institutes of Health to conscientiously observe the provisions of the Dickey-Wicker amendment, it would behoove them to sponsor studies in mice to determine when and how these STAP cells might be thought to constitute embryos before they provide funding for research on STAP cells in humans.

Some of the research that Obokata and her colleagues have already reported may shed some light on how scientists can create STAP cells without inadvertently creating embryos. For instance, the scientists have already found that STAP cells grown under certain conditions do not have the ability contribute to the placenta and behave more like normal iPS cells or ES cells. If scientists can identify the conditions under which STAP cells acquire different states of pluripotency, they can use this knowledge to set limits on how human cells can be grown. It will be important for scientists to attempt reproductive cloning in mice (and perhaps non-human primates as well) using STAP cells, and to publish the results of their attempts, whether they are successful or not.

One risk of doing the kind of research necessary to determine the conditions under which these STAP cells become real embryos is that the knowledge gained will not be used to limit the use of the new cells, but actually to extend their use into the realm of reproductive cloning. In a commentary accompanying their story about the new technique, the editors of New Scientistexpressed their concern that some “maverick” scientists might use the method for reproductive cloning:

Such antics would poison the promise of this advance before it even begins. This is an area where passions run high, and consensus will be hard to find. So the time is ripe for renewed discussion of the uses of stem cell technologies. We should make a clear-eyed start on it now.

While the debates over cloning and stem cell research have languished since the election of President Obama, who overturned President Bush’s compromise on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, developments like this one, and like the cloning of human embryos by scientists in Oregon last May, should remind us that the issues raised by the stem cell debate have not gone away.

Finding a way to make good on the promise of this new advance without having it poisoned by immoral applications will require a strong stance against cloning and embryo experimentation. If we can draw bright moral lines separating what is acceptable from what is immoral, then we can perform the research necessary to break new ground in biotechnology without fearing that such research will be used for dehumanizing ends.

Brendan P. Foht is assistant editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.

This article originally appeared in Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ. Reprinted with permission.

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