Stem Cells Without Embryo Loss
A small biotech company says it has found a way to produce human embryonic stem cells without destroying an embryo. That the prospect does not satisfy many religious conservatives who have opposed stem cell research demonstrates once again why the government should avoid making decisions on theological grounds.
The standard way to produce colonies of stem cells is to let an early human embryo grow to a size of about 150 cells, at which point its stem cells are extracted, and the embryo is destroyed in the process. But researchers at Advanced Cell Technology have now demonstrated that a colony can be grown from a single cell removed from an embryo that has only eight to 10 cells, using a process that should leave the embryo unharmed.
Nevertheless, religious conservatives have already denounced the technique, and the President’s Council on Bioethics, in a white paper evaluating alternative ways to produce stem cells, declared this approach “ethically unacceptable.”
The technique would seem to sidestep the council’s main objection, that it is unethical to put the tiny embryo at risk for research unrelated to the welfare of the embryo. Instead of removing a cell purely for stem cell research, the company proposes to use cells already removed for diagnostic tests at fertility clinics.
The clinics routinely remove a cell from eight-cell embryos to screen them for possible genetic defects before transferring the remaining embryo into a woman. Now the company proposes to intercept these cells, allow them to divide in a laboratory dish, and then use one cell for the diagnostic test and the other to derive stem cells. The process would add no additional risk to a diagnostic procedure that already seems quite safe.
But this approach won’t satisfy those who believe that even a single cell removed from an early embryo may have the potential to produce life. It won’t ease the council’s concern that research objectives may intrude into the practice of reproductive medicine at a time when doctors are making critical decisions. And so the Advanced Cell Technology approach does not seem likely to open the floodgates for federal financing. Mostly it illustrates the great lengths to which scientists must go these days to shape stem cell research to fit the dictates of religious conservatives who have imposed their own view of morality on the scientific enterprise.