A researcher in New York obtained women’s eggs and conducted experiments on them that could lead to human cloning. While done in the name of regenerative medicine, the experiments on embryonic stem cells involved the destruction of a human embryo. This kind of experimentation raises multiple ethical concerns, but the researcher went ahead anyway, and scientific journals are hailing the advance, albeit with a palpable twinge of conscience about ethics.
Dieter Egli had to move his practice from Massachusetts to New York to get around his home state’s laws against compensating women for egg donations. Using private funds, and paying women $8,000 for their eggs, he used a new method of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) that overcame a barrier other researchers have encountered. By leaving the egg nucleus intact, and transferring in a nucleus from skin cells, he was able to get the cells to grow past the point where previous attempts stalled. Embryonic stem cells from his blastula stages showed ability to generate three types of tissues – a sign of pluripotency. The results were published in Nature.1
It’s doubtful his cells would be useful, though, because they contain three sets of chromosomes instead of the usual two. Observers are treating this not as a breakthrough, or a process likely to lead to regenerative medicine, but just as an incremental step in understanding stem cells.
1. Noggle, Eglie et al., “Human oocytes reprogram somatic cells to a pluripotent state,” Nature 478 (06 October 2011), pages 70–75, doi:10.1038/nature10397.
Egli’s result raises ethical concerns in at least three ways (see Family Research Council outline on human cloning). First, paying women for their egg cells could tempt poor women to undergo a risky procedure. Second, the technique involves the destruction of a human embryo, which many believe to be a human life. Third, it advances the possibility of cloning humans and producing human-animal chimeras.
Finally, the method is unnecessary. Stem cells with all the regenerative power needed can be obtained from adult cells, without ethical concerns, via the induced pluripotent stem cell process (iPSC). There is no actual, tangible result from Egli’s work that shows a path to treatment for degenerative disease; all that is being claimed is the ability to compare embryonic stem cells with iPSCs. The title of a recent PNAS commentary announces: “Induced Pluripotency Leapfrogs Ahead.” No one has shown conclusively that embryonic stem cells are better than iPSCs. Meanwhile, exciting advances continue to pour forth on adult stem cells, as shown by a recent Science Daily article. And PhysOrg just reported that induced reprogramming is safer than previously thought, undermining claims that they are more subject to mutations. Another article on Medical Xpress announced a workable treatment for sickle cell anemia using a patient’s own adult stem cells.
Even the articles celebrating Egli’s announcement are aware of the ethical concerns. In the same issue of Nature, Insoo Hyun and Paul Tesar from Case Western Reserve University wrote that “Cloning advance calls for careful regulation.” Also in Nature, Jan Helge Solbakk of the Centre for Medical Ethics questioned the practice of paying women for their eggs. In Science the next day, Gretchen Vogel acknowledged the “ethical questions about obtaining oocytes from young, fertile women” and the “the ethical, legal, and practical hurdles that complicate his [Egli’s] work”. The BBC News acknowledge that work with iPCSs is “seen as more ethical”. Science Daily claimed that “The study was funded solely with private funding and adhered to ethical guidelines adopted” by various organizations, one of them being the American Society for Reproductive Medicine — but a quick look at some of their documents shows their “guidelines” to be wishy-washy statements with no teeth. If Egli has indeed tampered with human embryos and destroyed them unnecessarily, the ethical qualms will remain.
What worldview sees humans as objects, things, entities that can be used like guinea pigs? What worldview, by contrast, puts high value on the sanctity of human life? What kinds of practices lie down the road from those pathways? Remember that horrors can start innocently in small stages. One must look beyond these few cells Egli played with, and see a scientific community filled with avaricious individuals with eyes on a Nobel prize. Some of them will do whatever they can simply because they can. Treating diseases can be cover for other motivations; if they want the fast track to regenerative medicine, without ethical concerns, let them work with iPSCs. Human embryos are not playthings. You were one yourself once, too.