May 23, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Stem Cell Headlines

Research on embryonic stem cells is proceeding apace without an ethical anchor, and no clue where it will lead.  News coverage of the debate accelerated with an announcement from South Korea.

  • Match point:  The BBC News and many other news sources published South Korea’s announcement that stem cells matched to the individual have been tailored for the first time.
  • First clone:  The BBC News also announced that the UK had made its first human cloned embryo for harvesting stem cells.  The article quotes a ProLife alliance representative appalled over this; “No matter how it is created,” Josephine Quintavalle said, “a human embryo’s destiny should be to live and not to be turned into human stem cells.”  She also protested the “unsafe and inefficient” practice, and how it might subject women to dangerous fertility drugs in order to collect sufficient eggs.  Proponents agree that embryonic stem cell therapies only exist in theory; one professor said, “We are talking about several years before we are talking about a cell-based therapy that can go back into the patient.”
  • Contradictory results:  Science last week1 tried to clarify contradictory lab results by explaining “red herrings in stem cell research.”  They identified eight factors influencing stem cell plasticity, especially injury to the cells during lab procedure.
  • Korea and Ethics:  Gretchen Vogel in Science2 elaborated on South Korea’s widely-reported advance in the efficiency of deriving stem cells from cloned human embryos.  They got the success rate down from one in 200 to one in 20.  The improved skills of the Korean group nevertheless raise difficult ethical questions,” she says, referring to a Stanford bioethics statement in the same issue that warns, “research proceeds internationally, these issues must be adequately addressed for public confidence to be maintained.”3  Ethic problems include demand among scientists for fresh oocytes from young women, medical complications, long term complications, and chances that renegade doctors will attempt reproductive cloning.
  • Presidential angst:  President Bush said he was “very concerned” about Korea’s rapid advances in stem cell research, and said he would veto any bill loosening restrictions on federal funding for it.  See report on MSNBC News.  Although the research is not “banned” in the United States, federal funding is restricted.  Bush said he worries about a “world in which cloning becomes accepted,” and does not believe taxpayer money should “promote science which destroys life in order to save life.”
  • Political battle:  MSNBC also reported that a heated debate is brewing between Congress and the President over a bill proposed by a Republican from Delaware and a Democrat from Colorado to ease restrictions on federal funding of stem cell research.  Advocates are emphasizing promised cures “with emotional appeals from celebrity supporters as well as parents who ‘adopted’ their children as embryos,”  the article begins.  Supporters and opponents are deeply divided over whether the embryos are human beings.
  • International tensions:  Nigel Williams in Current Biology4 surveys the international scene, particularly in Europe where the EU has member states that stand “poles apart” on the issue.  He contrasts Switzerland’s liberal policy with Italy’s stern opposition due largely to the Catholic church.
  • International standards:  In Nature May 26,4 Erika Check suggested that nations need to pull together to decide what’s right.  Quoting Arthur Caplan, bioethicist at U. of Pennsylvania, “An international effort to coordinate stem-cell research would lend transparency to the field and ensure it proceeds in an ethical way.” 
  • Insufficient guidelines:  Nathaniel Nelson and Bert Thompson on Apologetics Press examined the NAS guidelines for embryonic stem cell research and found them “largely insufficient in dealing with the ethical stipulations” raised by the technology.

1Quesenberry et al., “Ignoratio Elenchi: Red Herrings in Stem Cell Research,” Science, Vol 308, Issue 5725, 1121-1122, 20 May 2005, [DOI: 10.1126/science.1104432].
2Gretchen Vogel, “Korean Team Speeds Up Creation Of Cloned Human Stem Cells,” Science, Vol 308, Issue 5725, 1096-1097, 20 May 2005, [DOI: 10.1126/science.308.5725.1096].
3Magnus and Cho, “Issues in Oocyte Donation for Stem Cell Research,” Science, published online 19 May 2005, [DOI: 10.1126/science.1114454].
4Erika Check, “Korea’s accelerating stem-cell work prompts calls for global ethical rules,” Nature 435, 393 (26 May 2005) | doi: 10.1038/435393a.

Our 02/08/2005 commentary still stands, and now we are in the thick of the ethical morass we knew was coming.  Bioethical voices seem powerless over the lure of money and prestige.  Erika Check quoted Caplan describing ethicists as standing on the sidelines and pouting, “you can’t do this.”  But would international controls help?  The U.N. with its Oil-for-Food scandal showed that international agencies are no guarantors of ethics: they can become the problem, not the solution.  Nor has the U.N. been willing or able to stop human rights violations in rogue nations like North Korea or Sudan.  It is doubtful an international science community would have any power over rogue nations and individuals now that stem cell research is hot.  We have seen that there are researchers within the civilized world with no qualms about trying anything that is possible, even putting human cells into rat brains (see 03/10/2005 entry).  In today’s amoral, selfish research culture, it seems as if the tables have turned: rat cells have invaded the human brain.

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