September 1, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Ethical Stem Cells Can Be Used Unethically

Induced pluripotent stem cells allow researchers to ethically create any cell type from an adult cell, raising hopes for regenerative medicine.  Eyebrows started to raise recently, though, when labs grew brains with them and turned others into sperm and egg cells.

iPS brains:  Austrian scientists have turned induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) into a “mini-brain” in a dish, comparable to a 9-week-old fetal brain, even showing neural activity.  New Scientist described what happened when the stem cells were injected into a 3-D scaffold:

In less than a month, the stem cells grew into brain-like “organoids” 3 to 4 millimetres across and containing structures that corresponded to most of the regions of the brain. For example, all the organoids they made appeared to contain parts of the cortex, about 70 per cent contained a choroid plexus – which produces spinal fluid – and about 10 per cent contained retinal tissue.

Live Science posted an Infographic on the experiment.  The BBC News has a picture of the “cerebral organoids” that resulted.  New Scientist attempted to placate any fears by claiming the mini-brain is not conscious:

One thing the brains won’t be able to do though is become conscious. Knoblich says that although they provide a good structural model, the complex activities necessary for higher brain function cannot be reproduced.

That is, not now.  But what of the future?  The BBC article discussed how ethicists might worry about what could come next:

The team in Vienna do not believe there are any ethical issues at this stage, but Dr Knoblich said he did not want to see much larger brains being developed as that would be “undesirable“.

Dr Zameel Cader, a consultant neurologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, said he did not see ethical issues arising from the research so far.

He told the BBC: “It’s a long way from conscience or awareness or responding to the outside world. There’s always the spectre of what the future might hold, but this is primitive territory.

As usual, it begins with good intentions: studying the brain to understand developmental diseases.  Somewhere, though, a science fiction writer is taking notes.

Artificial sex:  What happens when you take an iPS cell and turn it into an egg or sperm?  What happens if they come together?  Those are questions raised by developments in Japan.  “In a technical tour de force, Japanese researchers created eggs and sperm in the laboratory,” begins an article by David Cyranoski in Nature News about experiments with mice: “Now, scientists have to determine how to use those cells safely — and ethically.”  But can one trust the ethics of scientists intent on prizes and priority?

In an embedded audio, Ewen Callaway discussed scenarios.  Infertile couples desperate to have children may pounce on the opportunity—but so may same-sex couples.  Those who worry are told that any ethical concerns are a long way off.  It’s also unlikely that females, lacking the Y chromosome, will ever be able to make sperm.  Callaway responds, though, that technical challenges may be overcome; then what?  Who will put “oversight structures” in place?  If America forbids it, will patients flood to other countries less conscientious about ethics?

Katsuhiko Hayashi, the experimenter, has – once again – the best of intentions: to understand infertility.  From mice, he is moving on to monkeys; but his lab and another are already beginning to tweak human cells.  Ethically-questionable scenarios are already being thought about.  Cyranoski writes,

Eventually, human embryos will need to be made and tested, a process that will be slowed by restrictions on creating embryos for research. New, non-invasive imaging techniques will enable doctors to sort good from bad embryos with a high degree of accuracy. Embryos that seem to be similar to normal IVF embryos could get the go-ahead for implantation into humans. This might happen with private funding or in countries with less-restrictive attitudes towards embryo research.

When the technology is ready, even more provocative reproductive feats might be possible. For instance, cells from a man’s skin could theoretically be used to create eggs that are fertilized with a partner’s sperm, then nurtured in the womb of a surrogate.

Government restrictions, therefore – even if they materialize – can be sidestepped.  No oversight is in place.  The only roadblock, it appears, is the length of time it will take to advance the technology from mice to humans.

Adult and iPS stem cell experiments continue to advance as before.  iPSC’s can develop into cells that line blood vessels, Science Daily reported, offering hope to those with kidney disease dependent on heparin.  Another Science Daily article showed that iPS cells are sufficient for regenerating heart muscle cells without the need for embryonic stem cells.

Embryonic and fetal stem cells continue to be played with in some labs, though.  UC Davis used them to produce myelin, Science Daily reported.  Medical Xpress headlined, “Fetal tissue-derived stem cells may be ideal source for repairing tissues and organs,” claiming they are more effective than adult dermal cells.  It isn’t clear from the article if the “small fetal skin biopsies” were obtained from babies in the womb brought to term, or from abortions.  A related story, though, mentioned “The use of central nervous system fetal tissues derived from routine elective abortions to provide stem cells for transplantation procedures” as the source.

Letting scientists police their own ethics is like expecting racers to put governors on their engines.  If they can do it, they will.  We’ve seen them play with human fetuses (babies) and embryos with reckless abandon, screaming when the government tries to set limits.  Scientists enjoy such prestige these days, no one seems to have the chutzpah to stand in their way, and today’s ethicists are often materialists and Darwinists who don’t have a problem with “clumps of cells” in the first place.

What are now distant worries will some day become very real.  That Hideous Strength, the nightmare scenario of C. S. Lewis, is coming to pass.  We had better heed his warnings about science, scientism and a society unable to control its researchers.


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