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Technology & Culture Forum Discusses Stem Cells

biology

Ethics vs. Stem Cells

Technology & Culture Forum Discusses Stem Cells

By Shankar Mukherji

associate science editor

MIT’s Technology and Culture Forum hosted a lively discussion on the future of embryonic stem cell research, featuring viewpoints ranging from academic interest to ethical concerns. The national debate over stem cell research, which had noticeably quieted following the attacks of September 11, has been reinvigorated on the heels of news that cell biologists have produced the first known cloned human embryo.

Professor George Q. Daley PhD ’89 of Harvard Medical School introduced the science behind the debate, emphasizing the differences between adult and embryonic stem cells. Numerous investigators in the field, Daley claimed, feel that the greatest therapeutic benefit from the research can only be derived from those stem cells still in the embryonic stage.

Daley, who is also a fellow at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, said that stem cells at this stage exist at “the only time in human development where the cells retain that [high] degree of plasticity.”

“Each of these cells adopts a more limited fate, a limited diversity,” Daley said, “so that we have more pluripotential cells in the embryo and less restricted ... multipotential cells in the adult.”

Adult-derived stem cells, such as the bone marrow stem cell that gives rise to blood, do not exhibit the same degree of versatility as their embryonic counterparts, which can grow as immortal cells in culture as well as give rise to all the cells of the adult organism.

Daley noted, however, that the issue of adult versus embryonic cells is far from closed.

“We’re starting to appreciate that stem cells from the bone marrow may be able to give rise, under certain experimental conditions, to other tissues or other organ types, like the liver or even neurons.”

Still, Daley remains unconvinced of the exchangeability of the two types of stem cells.

“I would argue, from the perspective of a scientist working on both embryonic and adult stem cells in my laboratory, that we do not view these cells equivalently,” he said. “There is much greater plasticity, a much greater versatility in the embryonic cultures that we carry than in the adult stem cells we can generate.”

The ethicist questions science

Professor of Religion Thomas A. Shannon of Worcester Polytechnic Institute expressed concerns over the direction of stem cell research. “There are numerous ethical arguments that argue for caution in embryonic stem cell research,” said Shannon.

While not claiming to be an outright foe of the investigation into potential uses for stem cells in healthcare, Shannon cited several problems facing the line of investigation, most importantly the “continued commitment to high-tech medicine ... rather than getting at the underlying social and environmental causes of disease.”

Shannon believes that “the benefit of the research will go to those who are insured and those who can pay out of pocket, while the vast majority will not even have access to the technology.”

Instead, said Shannon, medical research should focus on more fundamental issues in healthcare. “Is high-tech rescue medicine the way [to treat human disease], or should we follow a different model of medical practice?” he asked. “The potential is there, but the real question is whether we want to allocate our scarce resources to this effort.”

Shannon also raised overarching moral concerns over the direction of the research. Pre-differentiated cells, said Shannon, “are not morally privileged to individuality, but do contain the essence of human nature.”

“To use such cells in research,” continued Shannon, “is in fact to objectivify human nature; it is a means to an end.”

Consumers matter too

Consumer advocate Abbey Meyers, president of the National Organization for Rare Disorders, also urged caution on the part of stem cell researchers because of what she called “an understandable skepticism of medical breakthroughs”.

“Stem cell research is paying a heavy price,” she said, “for the hype of medical research promises.”

In trying to obtain financial backing for their endeavors, according to Meyers, researchers had promised far more than they could realistically accomplish. “A far more responsible attitude must be taken by researchers if they are to regain the public’s trust,” said Meyers.

She pointed to the promises of gene therapy, which was widely regarded as an imminent panacea that would revolutionize medical practice. The failure of such gene therapies to sweep across the world, said Meyers, is just one example of the public being hurt “by the Wall Street hype of the research community.”

The often vitriolic debate over stem cell policy, she noted, is not helping to smooth over patient mistrust of new healthcare technologies. “The adversarial nature of researchers and federal regulators only further erodes the public trust,” claimed Meyers.

When asked by an audience member whether or not she was afraid that the United States would fall behind Europe and others in stem cell research, she said that “It doesn’t matter who gets it first. The race between countries doesn’t matter. I don’t care who has them, just as long as we, the patients, can get them.”

Stem cell interest on rise again

Interest in the future of biomedical research has grown after researchers at Worcester, Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technologies (ACT) announced that they had artificially cloned a human embryo. As current federal policy limits funding on embryonic stem cell research to those lines already established and announced by the National Institutes of Health, private companies such as ACT are moving ahead with controversial research programs while their publicly-funded counterparts stand by and watch.