June 30, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Mad Scientists Poised on the Slippery Slope

Stem cells can do good or harm, depending on their source.  When scientists think themselves above ethics, watch out.

Adult Stem Cell News

Adult stem cells (AS) and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) are safe and effective ways to treat a variety of diseases, ethically neutral because they are not derived from human embryos.

The first clinical trial with iPS is drawing near, Science Now reported.  In Japan, they will be used to treat age-related macular degeneration.  PhysOrg states this will give hope to millions of elderly people robbed of their sight.  Before iPS, the only way to harvest stem cells was from embryos, the article said, a process that is “controversial because it requires the destruction of the embryo, a process to which religious conservatives, among others, object,” implying that liberals have less a problem with destroying human embryos.

Speaking of blindness, adult stem cells derived from body fat may help treat retinopathy, “a complication of diabetes that threatens the vision of millions,” Medical Xpress reported.  Since “everybody has extra fat,” this alternative treatment can garner an abundance of source material while being gentler on the eye.  “”Most importantly, you can obtain them from the same donor as you would be injecting into, so it’s autologous therapy, meaning you don’t need to worry about the body’s immune response.”

Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology have found a faster way to isolate iPS cells, Live Science reported, based on their stickiness.  This will allow “scientists to experiment with a greater number of cells at a time and thereby speeding progress toward potential medical therapies.”

Science Magazine reported progress with growing entire tissues, such as portions of the intestine, from stem cells embedded in a patient’s own tissues.  A single intestinal stem cell can develop into a “mini-gut” with folds and all. “Because biopsies taken from live donors can serve as the tissue source, this approach could solve ethical and logistical issues associated with organ transplantation and may represent a safe complement to embryonic or induced pluripotent stem cell–based strategies.

Embryonic Stem Cells and Cloning

Scientists know that experimentation on human embryos is “controversial” and raises “ethical issues,” yet many of them continue to lust after embryonic stem cells (ES) and, even more shocking, want to work on human cloning and human-animal chimeras.

Science Magazine asked, “Does Cloning Produce Better Embryonic Stem Cells?“, implying that if they do, scientists would want to use them.  Nothing was said about ethics in the article.  Shoukhrat Mitalipov, the researcher at University of Oregon who recently claimed to have cloned human embryos (see 5/13/13), is arguing that “cloned human embryonic stem cells may have some advantages over other cells.”  That is a completely pragmatic argument that dodges whether scientists should pursue their use.

Nature printed the views of two researchers in the Netherlands who, while applauding Mitalipov’s achievement, advocate sticking with iPS cells and improving them instead of tinkering with human embryos by harvesting eggs. (Note: their views are not necessarily those of the editors of Nature.)

In our opinion, the discovery in 2006 that differentiated adult cells can be directly reprogrammed to a stem-cell-like state called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells was a more significant breakthrough for this research field. iPS cells can be generated by introducing just four transcription factors into differentiated cells of an individual, without the need for the ethically sensitive step of creating embryos from oocytes as intermediates…. Indeed, many laboratories now routinely generate iPS cells from patients, bypassing the practical and regulatory difficulties associated with obtaining human oocytes.

Hybrids and Chimeras

On the path to the mad scientist in H. G. Wells’  The Island of Dr. Moreau, some researchers lust to mix human and animal tissue into “chimera” organisms.  New Scientist discussed this ethical dilemma in an article, “Human-animal hybrids mean boom time for bioethicists.”  It’s not talking about implanting a pig heart valve into a patient, but something more sinister.  The UK has some ethics guidelines about what can and cannot be done:

Two years ago, the UK Academy of Medical Sciences released a groundbreaking report on “animals containing human material“. It concluded that most research on chimeras is permitted by existing UK laws. But it also identified some experiments that should not (yet) be done because of strong ethical objections. One is to breed an animal that has human sperm or eggs. Another is to create a non-human primate with a humanised brain.

That qualifier “(yet)” is worrisome.  What ethical standards will govern future experimenters, particularly if it becomes very profitable or leads to pragmatic breakthroughs to save lives?  New Scientist said that Japan is already “very” close to crossing the boundaries of the UK standards. One can already hear the pragmatists arguing that human-animal hybrids made from pigs or primates will provide all kinds of benefits (not the least of which, money for the profiteers):

All of which leads to the unsurprising conclusion that the ultimate aim of this research – to provide desperately needed human organs for transplantation – can only be achieved if serious ethical and technical hurdles are surmounted. We are rapidly approaching those ethical hurdles…. Of course, any ethical concerns must be weighed against the potential benefits for human health and life. An entire generation of bioethicists may not be needed, but there is still plenty of work to be done.

Complications of  Crossing Ethical Lines

At the end of June, Nature published a historical story ripe for pitting ethicists against pragmatists.  A stem cell line generated from an aborted fetus in 1962 has been used to to create vaccines that have saved many lives.  Unlike stem cells from diseased individuals, the “normal” cells from this Wi-38 stem cell line, derived from the “legal abortion,” is “the most extensively described and studied normal human cells available to this day.”  Here’s the ethical dilemma:

Vaccines made using WI-38 cells have immunized hundreds of millions of people against rubella, rabies, adenovirus, polio, measles, chickenpox and shingles. In the 1960s and 1970s, the cells helped epidemiologists to identify viral culprits in disease outbreaks. Their normality has made them valuable control cells for comparison with diseased ones. And at the Wistar Institute, as in labs and universities around the world, they remain a leading tool for probing the secrets of cellular ageing and cancer.

“Here’s a clump of cells that has had an enormous impact on human health,” says Paul Offit, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “These cells from one fetus have no doubt saved the lives of millions of people.”

The article went on to describe the money trail from the WI-38 cell line.  The scientist who obtained them, Leonard Hayflick, started selling access to them, earning $90,000, leading to debates about how scientists should profit from human cells.  (The money went to lawyers because of ensuing legal squabbles over the cells.)  Even more troubling, “the WI-38 strain has helped to generate billions of dollars for companies that produce vaccines based on the cells, yet it seems that the parents of the fetus have earned nothing.”  But should they, if they chose to abort? In what kind of society does someone earn money for killing?

The “ends justify the means” pragmatic arguments weaken when considering that other methods could have sufficed to save lives. Vaccines obviously existed well before 1962. “Other vaccines are produced in a completely morally non-objectionable way,” one pro-life activist argued.  “So why aren’t we doing this with all vaccines?”

For 40 years, anti-abortion activists have protested against the use of WI-38 and vaccines developed from it. “It’s still a live issue,” says Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison. “We still have people who refuse to take these vaccines because of their origins in fetal tissue.”

But what if those people weren’t around?

It appears that Hayflick preferred the fetal cells because he believed they had less exposure to viruses than adult cells.  He reasoned that if nothing were done with the fetal cells made available to him, they would end up in the incinerator – thus the pragmatic argument.  Is this not the same as salvaging organs from a car accident fatality victim?  But what if such pragmatic moves create a market for engineering car accidents?

It’s telling that Nature should have focused exclusively on possible injustices to Hayflick and the parents of the aborted baby (the “tissue donors”).  Hayflick himself seems blind to the real victim:

Hayflick argues that there are at least four stakeholders with title to WI-38 or any human cell culture: the tissue donors, the scientists whose work gave it value, the scientists’ institution and the body that funded the work. “Like me”, he adds, “hundreds of other scientists had their careers advanced using WI-38 and other human cell cultures so we all owe a moral debt to the tissue donors.

Clearly, though, the most unjustly treated individual was the aborted baby, who had no opportunity for life or liberty to give its consent to sacrifice its life for others.  If there had been no pressure from pro-lifers throughout the 50 years since the abortion, it’s doubtful the scientists, pharmaceutical companies and lawyers would have many ethical qualms with the use of fetal tissue, those “clumps of cells” that are so very useful and profitable.

Ever since science as an institution cut itself loose from the moorings of religion, it has floundered aimlessly on a sea of pragmatism, anchored on nothing but Darwinian self-interest.  Morality requires the presupposition that certain things are eternally right or wrong.  How can a Darwinist ground ethics in a universe where everything evolves? One can feel the tension in these articles.  The scientists have self-interest and motivation for money or fame to do anything they can in the name of science, but are troubled by their consciences and fear of upsetting funding sources who might be listening to the pro-life activists who believe in the sanctity of human life (a Biblical world view).  Pragmatic arguments can be very strong.  Scientists can rationalize about human health and lives that could be saved by the new technologies.  Take away conscience (which Darwinism can do) and political opposition, and they stand on the edge of the slippery slope.

The atrocities possible in a world down the slope are very real.  They not only can happen; they have happened.  Who cannot remember with horror the “medical experiments” committed in Nazi Germany by well-known scientists?  Experiments were done not just on living prisoners, but on the corpses coming from the death camps.  The scientists justified some of that work on the grounds that they didn’t do the killing; they were just taking good advantage of a bad situation.  Compare that with what Hayflick and the scientific institutions did.  Hey; the abortion was legal, wasn’t it?  Didn’t the government legislate it as ethical at the time?  Pragmatism teases rationalization.  “Hey, I didn’t kill the fetus; don’t blame me!  I’m doing something good with the tissue!”  Enough of that line of thinking, and abortion increases – justified on the grounds that mothers are helping “science” by sacrificing their children to the new Moloch.

There are Darwinian bioethicists.  They are useless.  On what basis would they say “no” to anything the scientific institutions and pharmaceutical companies want?   The only people keeping a leash on the mad scientists of our day are those who can ground their ethics in unchanging morality – particularly, Christians and Jews who believe in the holy, righteous, just transcendent Creator God of the Bible, who gave mankind the Ten Commandments.  That leash must hold.

Resources for thinking about the limits of the ethically possible in a Darwinian world:


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