August 25, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Embryonic Stem Cells No Longer Needed?

Two announcements this week may make harvesting embryonic stem cells obsolete.  First, it’s not necessary to kill an embryo to get a stem cell, reported Associated Press (see Fox News) and Live Science.  While this does not solve all the ethical problems, a White House spokeswoman called it “encouraging to see scientists at least making serious efforts to move away from research that involves the destruction of embryos.”  Robert P. George later claimed in National Review that the hype was a lie.  The technique did involve the destruction of embryos.  He argued, though, that the push for alternative techniques shows that the researchers recognize the need to find ways to address the ethical issues surrounding stem cell technology; this, he said, is a “welcome development.”
    Second, and more significant, Japanese scientists found that adult stem cells can be made pluripotent, like embryonic stem cells, by the addition of a few factors.  A press release on EurekAlert expresses the benefit of this procedure:

“Human embryonic stem cells might be used to treat a host of diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, and diabetes,” said Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan.  “However, there are ethical difficulties regarding the use of human embryos, as well as the problem of tissue rejection following transplantation into patients.”
    Those problems could be circumvented if pluripotent cells could be obtained directly from the patients’ own cells.

Obviously these announcements are too early to know the impact.  “While the findings could have wide applications, stem cell experts caution that the study of embryonic stem cells has much further to go,” the press release said.

The first method still presents ethical problems.  The technique could cause unknown damage to the embryo, and the cell that is taken out, if it could still grow into a human being, does not circumvent the ethical issues.  In fact, pro-life groups are already speaking out against it according to the AP article.  The second technique looks much more promising and is the one to watch.  If adult stem cells can have all the advantages of ES cells, including the holy grail of pluripotency, it pulls out the rug from under all arguments for needing to destroy embryos to get at their pluripotent stem cells.  If scientists continue to push for ES cells then, their true motives will be unmasked.
    An important lesson from these two stories is that pressure from ethicists and concerned citizens is essential for reining in the otherwise out-of-control ambitions of scientists about ES cells.  Science is not ethically neutral.  It cannot operate outside of a social context.  The citizens who fund research and expect to reap the benefits need to monitor the direction science is going and voice their concerns when researchers look like they are about to cross the line.  For instance, read this EurekAlert press release, “Brave new world in life sciences,” about threats to public health and safety from new kinds of research.

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