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June 6, 2005

Stem Cell Advances May Make Moral Issue Moot

Topics: Medicine

Stemcells
[An illustration showing the basics of stem cells. A newly fertilised egg produces 8 identical cells that go on to form a 'clump' of cells that can potentially produce  other types of cells.]

Bill at INDC Journal asks if we,  "Can skirt the ethical debate?" While an intriguing question, I wonder if the anti-life folks on the left are ready for the answer? After all, they enjoy and even look for, slippery slopes! However, as Bill writes in his post:

If only human embryonic stem cells could sprout anew from something other than a human embryo. Researchers could harvest them and perhaps harness their great biomedical potential without destroying what some consider to be a budding human life.

But like a low-calorie banana split or the proverbial free lunch, there is no such thing as an embryo-free embryonic stem cell.

Or is there?

In recent months, a number of researchers have begun to assemble intriguing evidence that it is possible to generate embryonic stem cells without having to create or destroy new human embryos.

The research is still young and largely unpublished, and in some cases it is limited to animal cells. Scientists doing the work also emphasize their desire to have continued access to human embryos for now. It is largely by analyzing how nature makes stem cells, deep inside days-old embryos, that these researchers are learning how to make the cells themselves.

Yet the gathering consensus among biologists is that embryonic stem cells are made, not born -- and that embryos are not an essential ingredient. That means that today's heated debates over embryo rights could fade in the aftermath of technical advances allowing scientists to convert ordinary cells into embryonic stem cells.

...

"The president has said it is wrong to destroy a life to save a life," Lanza said. "This might be a way to get some cell lines that the president . . . can get behind."

Is it possible to that a single cell taken from an eight-cell fertility clinic embryo could give rise to a self-replicating line of embryonic stem cells without compromising the donor embryo's odds of someday growing into a baby?  Can chemicals be used safely to get an adult human skin cell to fuse with a human embryonic stem cell and the two cells become one with shared cellular contents, including two full batches of genes - without consequences down the road?

Patrick Dixon writing in GlobalChange has much to say about just where stem cell research is going:

The future of stem cells.             

In summary, expect rapid progress in adult stem cells and slower, less intense work with embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cell technology is already looking rather last-century, along with therapeutic cloning. History will show that by 2020 we were already able to produce a wide range of tissues using adult stem cells, with spectacular progress in tissue building and repair. In some cases these stem cells will be actually incorporated into the new repairs as differentiated cells, in other cases, they will be temporary assistants in local repair processes.            

We will also see some exciting new pharmaceutical products in the pipeline, which promise to do some of the same tricks without having to remove a single stem cell from the body. These drugs may for example activate bone marrow cells and encourage them to migrate to parts of the body where repairs are needed.            

And along the way we will see a number of biotech companies fold, as a result of over-investment into embryonic stem cells, plus angst over ethics and image, without watching the radar screen closely enough, failing to see the onward march of adult stem cell technology.            

Using embryos as a source of spare-part cells will always be far more controversial than using adult tissue, or perhaps cells from umbilical cord after birth, and investors will wish to reduce uneccessary risk, both to the projects they fund, and to their own organisations by association.       

Despite this, we can expect embryonic stem cell research to continue in some countries, with the hope of scientific breakthroughs of various kinds. .......

According to Thinkers 50 2003, Dr Patrick Dixon is Chairman of Global               Change  Ltd and described as a "Global Change Guru"  by the Wall Street Journal.                He has been ranked as one of the world's             50 most influential business thinkers alive today.

And just where is all of this taking us? Look for continued efforts on both sides of the cultural and political issue of stem cell research to continue their fight. Who's going to win - all of us are going to win by benefiting from scientific and societal development/growth. I'm willing to make a small wager that after much debate by scientists and politicians, in the end their all bickering over a moot point. We're headed to a more advanced technology and interest in fetal-derived embryonic stem cells are going the way of the rotary phone. Have a little faith!

Suggested readings:

Stem Cell Basics
(Video) - Should Scientists Be Told When To Stop?
Cultural differences in stem cell research


Posted by Hyscience at June 6, 2005 2:59 PM



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