Dr. Andy

Reflections on medicine and biology among other things

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Stem Cell Primer III: Moral Issues

Does anyone object to use of adult stem cells? Not that I am aware of. Bone marrow transplants, in which the bone marrow contains a source of stem cells (which can differentiate into all the different types of blood cells) is a crude form of stem cell use and as far as I know no one objects.

How about embryonic stem cells? Yes, plenty of people object to it. Embryonic stem cells are created from embryos "left-over" from in vitro fertilization. Those who believe life starts at conception see these embryos as human lifes, not as sources of raw material. The counterargument is that these embryos already exist and are just sitting in freezers. They will never be implanted and so never have the chance to develop, so they might as well be utilized.
The pro argument would also note that the vast majority of embryos at this stage do not make it to birth, for a variety of reasons.

SCNT must be even more controversial. You got it. Besides the embryo=human life objection, there is a very fine, perhaps indistinguishable, line between therapeutic and reproductive cloning. In therapeutic cloning you create the genetically identifiable embryo only to use it as a source of stem cells for treatment. In reproductive cloning, you do the same thing, but you actually plan to use the embryo for implantation hoping to develop an actual baby.

Is anyone in favor of human reproductive cloning? Not really

What is the U.S. government's role in all this? The federal government, primarily through the National Institute of Health (NIH), funds most biomedical research in the U.S. If they don't fund it, the research probably doesn't get done, although there are other funding sources (private foundations such as Howard Hughes Medical Institute, other countries, and now California).

The government could also pass laws banning certain experiments and a bill has been introduced in Congress to ban SCNT to create human embryos.

Didn't President Bush promote some compromise? Yes. He proclaimed that the NIH would fund research on already created human stem cell lines, but would not fund research on making or using new ones.

Did that satisfy anyone? No. For one, he overestimated how many cell lines were in existence. Second, there is not way the lines now in existence will be enough. From the other side, if working with cell lines derived from human embryos is wrong, it was as wrong in the past as it is now.

What do you think? Thanks for asking. In general, I think that stem cells are a promising but far from certain area for new therapies for a number of diseases. I think embryonic stem cells are more likely to generate the number of cells required than are adult stem cells, but I don't really know. I am skeptical theat SCNT is feasible, as it seems like a lot of work to do for each patient, but maybe I am just not thinking big enough.

Any arguments from either side that really annoy you? Yes. I dislike what I consider disingenuous arguments. Like pro-life anti-embryonic stem cells arguing that embryonic stem cells are a waste of time because adult stem cells are so much better or more promising. That is just BS. Opposing embryonic stem cells because you believe that is exploiting human life is a reasonable argument, which I don't happen to share. Saying such research is useless is flat-out wrong.

On the other side, I think the pro-SCNT arguments saying that human reproductive cloning could NEVER be feasible ring a bit hollow. Sure it isn't possible now, but who is to say advances won't be made. Better to accept this as potentially feasible in the future and think about how to prevent/control/regulate it (or not) than to pretend it could never happen.


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