Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Ethical Embryonic Stem Cells?

At the risk of spending too much time blogging....

Science News notes two techniques designed to side-step ethical concerns in obtaining embryonic stem cells: Do No Harm: Stem cells created without destroying healthy embryos (Week of Oct. 22, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 17 , p. 259)

The first plucks a single cell from an eight-cell blastocyst (early embryo) as they do in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. The other (about which I've written before) creates embryonic clones (from somatic cells), but missing a gene essential to implantation.

Perhaps you've already realized that neither of these techniques effectively avoid the core moral objections to embryonic stem cells (aside from the first's reliance on IVF). As the article notes,

Although these methods may ease ethical concerns for some people, others may view them as just "a new version of embryo destruction," says Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She notes that research hasn't ruled out the possibility that a single cell plucked from an early embryo, as in Lanza's work, can form a new embryo. Furthermore, some people may view the abnormal clumps of cells missing cdx2 in the Meissner-Jaenisch study as "terminally ill" embryos rather than just masses of cells.

Science News deserves credit for exploring the ethical issues, and these researchers deserve credit for trying (albeit unsuccessfully) to resolve the ethical problems with embryonic stem cells.

I'm still beginning my study of the biochemistry of cellular determination (in early development), so this is just me thinking out loud: it seems to me that it should be possible in principle to grow embryonic clones in a chemical environment that makes them "think" they should become part of an individual, instead of a full individual. So far I can't any problem (ethical or technical) with this approach, though my gut reaction is that it's just too easy not to have some invisible difficulty.

2 comments:

Jon Jackson said...

MJ,
Embryonic stem cell research is about money. Bayh-Dole and the ability to patent genes saw to that. To the best of my knowledge no cure for any disease has come from embryonic stem cells yet you have researchers salivating to get at the unborn because there is the potential of so much money on the line.

In some ways it's a microcosm of the difference between design and Darwinism. We all know cars are designed. But your car wasn't designed from the ground up at each iteration. Rather it was designed one step at a time over many years. So there are literally hundreds of patents in every car, many of which are owned by differing individuals and companies. So when a car is built there are plenty of processes and systems that make money for lots of people. But this is because a car is designed. But while many properties of the cell are understood, in many ways it is still Darwin's black box.

Imagine for a moment that we didn't have a clue of how a car worked. And imagine that some eager beaver scientists, in their attempts to explore the mysteries of wheeled transportation found out that whatever was under the hood was valuable and decided to patent the entire engine compartment. First there are only a limited number of people to share the money with and second once the engine compartment is patented there isn't a lot left to patent.

With both universities and individual scientists standing to make huge amounts of money on potential discoveries they can't afford not to look into embryonic stem cells.
And while they may make a nod toward satisfying those they consider squeamish, I just don't think they will change in a way that would make me truly comfortable: They still won't value human life.

Lawrence Gage said...

Jon,

Excellent points!

Not only is the push for embryonic stem cell research about money, it's about Somebody Else's Money: that of you, the taxpayer!

Why do they want public funds? Because while researchers may salivate over totipotency (not quite omnipotency), investors know better than to sink their money in such speculative endeavors. Smart money's on adult stem cells, and the researchers bank on gullible public money. California, here I come!

I do think we need encourage even token efforts toward ethical sanity. We need to reach out our hands to the extent we can, even if they end up deciding to slap them back.

Yes, any serious scientist will admit that the development of the cell is the biggest gap in biological knowledge. In talking to scientists, though, it's important to stress the insufficiency of the theories to explain the world and not tell them they're flat-out wrong. A scientist with any humility will admit that he doesn't know everything. In my recent posts on Darwinism I've been making the point that this insufficiency is what makes evolutionary biology almost completely culturally irrelevant. The experts tell us that the theory has validity in its own proper domain, but that domain is very limited.

It's vital to avoid being overly confrontational (though I myself have bad habits in this regard!). Serious discussions cannot avoid truth, but at the same time, there's no need to magnify unnecessary conflict: such sensationalism is the function of the mainstream media.

Thanks again for your comments!

MJ