Stem Cells Part II

A few weeks ago we had a post regarding the great controversy over stem cells. I was reading Slate and discovered that there is yet an other new controversy. I’m curious of what people here think of it, especially in light of LDS theology.

Is it allright to create and destroy something almost human? That’s the big topic at Friday’s meeting of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Council member Bill Hurlbut, a Stanford biologist, wants to end-run the moral debate over stem cells. He proposes to follow the recipe for human cloning—put the nucleus of a body cell into a gutted egg cell—but turn off a crucial gene so that the resulting “biological artifact” produces stem cells without organizing itself into an embryo. According to a draft white paper prepared by council staff, “Several scientists have indicated that they believe [the plan] can easily be made to work, and a few are apparently ready to try it out in non-human animals.”

Note how this avoids the biggest worry about normal cells. That they can develop into a human being. These are made genetically so the explicitly can’t so develop. In other words, they are essentially just a cell culture.

Needless to say many people still find the idea appalling. But do they do so rationally? That is, beyond charges of playing God, or that it is “weird,” is there anything ethically wrong about it? I can’t think of anything.

21 thoughts on “Stem Cells Part II

  1. Is life sacred?
    Is the human body sacred?
    These are the real questions.
    To say that it will be altered (damaged!) in such a way that it will no longer develop normally does not make it any better.
    To me, that is like saying it is wrong to take a child’s organs and sell them, because then they can’t continue to develop, but if you kill the child first, it will then no longer be able to develop, so taking its organs to sell will then be fine.
    It’s an important principle at stake here.
    Life is sacred. Trifle not with sacred things.

  2. Arturo, as soon as we get a working time machine going, I’ll buy that, as long as you let me go back in time & tell _your_ soon to become, but not yet, “embryo” that it is an ‘entity’ and not a ‘creature,’ and hence not to be allowed to develop.

  3. This sounds like a feasible alternative to destroying human embryos. Instead of a human embryo, as you say, one is simply dealing with cultured cells of some sort. If I understand the quotation correctly, the cells are in some kind of pre-embryonic state and completely lack the potential to become an embryo. If this process can create the stem-cells that are needed for experiments then it seems that it would be an improvement on the process — a way to further assure that a potential human being isn’t being destroyed.

  4. Something else to consider is there are stem cells present in cord blood and this would be a more ethical and viable option since cord blood is generally discarded immediately following birth.

    I personally don’t know much about the efficacy of it, but from what I have heard it would be worth looking into.

  5. If I am understanding the science behind this it sounds like a feasable alternative. The ethical debate is centered more about the termination of life for profit (monetary or scientific), when is an embryo a child and so forth. Since some of these questions, specifically the latter cannot be easily answered therefore it is better to err on the side of caution.

    In this new developement it seems that we can avoid the delima by using genetic base material that will not grow and develop. The Question is this, is the new genetic base material the equivalent of a fertalized cell before it is altered not to grow? Is the alteration done before or after the fertilizing process, if before and the material is collected from volunteers, I find it difficult to challenge this.

  6. I am of two minds about this issue. I believe the Lord has told us explicitly in Gen. 2:7 when life begins: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” It really couldn’t be more clear. Man is not a living soul until the breath of life (spirit) comes into his being. When does that happen? It may not happen when the sperm and egg are joined. It may take a few days or weeks for the human embryo to develop until the spirit can enter. But it certainly does happen by the first trimester. This is why I support the Church’s position on abortion — we don’t know when human life starts, so we can’t pretend that all abortions are murder (although the vast majority are indeed murder).

    So, does the “stuff” that the Stanford prof wants to create constitute human life? Probably less so than if it were an embryo. So it is possible that he would not be creating human life just to kill it with scientific experiments.

    That said, it sounds like a dangerous field of experimentation to me. There are simply some areas of medical science that are crossing ethical boundaries. This may be one.

  7. My understanding is that it is just a clone of one of a regular human adult’s cells that are effectively made a stem cell, but modified so the stem cell can’t develop normally. So it really is just a culture, no different (in my eyes) than a culture of skin cells.

    In other news some of those stem cell lines Bush allows research on have apparently been purged of the foreign contaminations. So some of those may end up being useful afterall. (Although its too early to tell)

  8. I know very little about stem cell biology, but I’m just going to hazard a guess at how they would do this.

    They would take cells from a person and culture them. (I think we can all agree that these cells are not a person. If they are, boy have we got problems!) Using a relatively new technology, they would insert DNA in the genome of the cells that specifically blocks the expression of whatever gene they are targeting. (RNAi is what I’m thinking, for those who know what it is.)

    Then they take the genome out of an egg. (No, it wasn’t a human either.) They insert the modified genome from the original cells into this emptied egg. Now the egg with the new genome can grow and provide the benefits of a stem cell, but because the expression of that crucial gene is blocked, it cannot organize into an embryo, and therefore cannot become a human.

    What is the problem?

    Might I suggest that obsessing over whether one or a few cells in a petri dish constitue a unique person is looking beyond the mark?

  9. Charles and Jared are dead right. Charles nailed the question right on the head and Jared essentially said what I think only in more intelligent terms than I could. Cells from grown people aren’t people too. Every female is endowed with tens of thousands of eggs she will never need to reproduce and unfertilized eggs aren’t people, at the very least until they are fertilized. I don’t see anything inherently sacred about any of this. And the benefits from this kind of research could be staggering. It sounds like a brilliant compromise. I say do it until someone produces a better ethical reason than has already been stated. Peggy seems to be comparing apples to oranges. Anyone else here think that taking unfertilized eggs from volunteers, maybe women too old to have any more children, is the same thing as killing a child, stealing its vital organs and donating them? Plus, and this is a completely different issue, I think God is responsible for all knowledge mankind recieves. True we can misuse it in horrible ways but there always seems to be a righteous use for it that God intends. I’m not convinced that this use of this knowledge isn’t the good thing God intends. But that may be neither here nor there.

  10. Umm, what exactly does that mean J. Stapley? Was your comment sarcastic or serious?

  11. And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” It really couldn’t be more clear. Man is not a living soul until the breath of life (spirit) comes into his being. When does that happen? It may not happen when the sperm and egg are joined. It may take a few days or weeks for the human embryo to develop until the spirit can enter. But it certainly does happen by the first trimester.


    I think that a little textual research will show that the “breath of life” wasn’t some kind of odd metaphor for immaterial matter, but actually referred to the mechanical process of breathing — i.e., aspirating the nitrogen/oxygen/carbon dioxide mixture that composes our atmosphere; hence the “spirit” in respire, suspire, and (via some spelling shenanigans) ex[s]pire.

    I suppose one could argue that “the breath of life” occurs prior to birth as fetuses do develop and strengthen their diaphragms in utero by aspirating amniotic fluid, but I’m a little bit uncomfortable relying on the text of the Bible to reach a conclusion about such matters.

    I think it more useful to identify other (IMO) more relevant criteria, such as levels of active upper brain functions and the like.

    FWIW, I see no moral issue at all with regard to the practice described in the original item.

  12. I would refer you to a piece by Charles Krauthammer called “Thou Shalt Not Create

    I will work with Congress to ensure that human embryos are not created for experimentation or grown for body parts, and that human life is never bought and sold as a commodity. (Applause) — State of the Union address, Feb. 2, 2005

    That declaration drew more than applause. It received a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle — demonstrating that even amid the confusion and dishonesty in this country’s bioethics debates, some truths remain self-evident. And one of those truths is that human embryos are to be created for the purpose of producing babies, not for commerce and not to be dismembered for study or spare parts. Yet what was remarkable about this moment — at the time, and for over a month now, almost entirely overlooked by the media — was that the Democrats who rose to join the applause were endorsing a principle that is at war with a key part of their own biotech agenda: research cloning.

    Let me explain. When you clone a (somatic, i.e. adult) human cell, you turn it first into an embryonic cell with which you can do two things: (a) let it grow (in theory, with implantation in a uterus) to become a cloned baby, or (b) take it apart very early to derive stem cells (research cloning).

    Everyone opposes (a) because everyone agrees that cloning children is a monstrous idea that deserves to be banned. But congressional Democrats (with the support of some equally confused Republicans) support (b), research cloning. But that means you’ve just created a human embryo for the exclusive purpose of experimentation and dissection — the banning of which most everyone in the House chamber stood up to cheer.

    The Democrats were oblivious to this contradiction. It jumped out at me because three years ago, in working out my own contribution to the cloning report of the President’s Council on Bioethics (on which I serve), I had proposed creation as the bright line to separate what is permissible from what is impermissible in embryonic research.

    Presidents come and go. And when this president goes, the next president could, and probably will, reverse the Bush policy and allow federal funding for stem cells derived from newly discarded embryos. I would applaud that. But I deplore the step that proponents of such research are already demanding: research cloning, i.e., creating special embryos entirely for the purpose of using them for their parts.

    This is crossing a critical moral red line. We may honorably disagree about the moral dignity due a tiny human embryo. But we must establish some barrier to the most wanton, reckless and hubristic exploitation of the human embryo for our own purposes.

    The line is easy to find: You do not create a human embryo to be a means to some other end. Most people with a moral sense, as demonstrated by the spontaneous response to the State of the Union declaration, understand immediately that there is something fundamentally different, fundamentally corrupting, fundamentally dangerous about allowing — indeed, encouraging — the manufacture of human embryos for the purpose of their dissection and use for parts.

  13. I think that unless GBH comes out and says its wrong, then we should be fine doing it. I don’t think there’s any sort of doctrinal condemnation of stem cell research. Does the phrase “life is sacred” apply at the molecular or cellular level? I think not. Can we conceive that every sperm and every egg has a spirit? Perhaps but i don’t think that if they do the same spirit stays when the baby is born or when they conjoin.

    The biggest split between the opinions here is the idea of considering something sacred because of what it could be and regarding something as sacred because of what it is.

    I’m with Geoff B in stating that the line here is wide and/or fuzzy.

  14. For those interested the paper referred to by Slate is here. I think reading through the details of the actual theory answers Peggy’s concerns. The point is that you don’t clone a regular adult cell. Rather you clone a genetically modified adult cell. That cell genetically can’t develop. So Krauthammer is left with only the “icky” concern. Which frankly isn’t much of a concern. Especially since every day new treatments using stem cells are being found. Frankly stem cell therapies may be the first bio-tech breakthrough that not only actually lives up to the hype but may surpass it.

    Using the techniques of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), but with the intentional alteration of the nucleus before transfer, we could construct a biological entity that, by design and from its very beginning, lacks the attributes and capacities of a human embryo. Studies with mice already provide evidence that such a project of Altered Nuclear Transfer (ANT) could generate functional ES cells from a system that is not an organism, but is biologically (and morally) more akin to the partial organic potential of a tissue or cell culture. …

    [T]he proposed genetic alteration is accomplished ab initio, the entity is brought into existence with a genetic structure insufficient to generate a human embryo. From the beginning and at every point along its development it cannot be designated a living being. No human embryo would be created; hence, none would be violated, mutilated or destroyed in the process of stem cell harvesting.

    Mirth, I don’t think the split is over sacredness. I think one can still consider a collection of tissue sacred without thinking that entails it being treated as a human. Sacredness involves how we relate to it. The sacrament is sacred, for instance, but clearly I treat it differently from how I treat a baby. So I think the sacredness issue, while important, is also a bit of a red herring.

    I should add that I’ve been reading some of the pro-life groups view of the proposal. They consider this merely a severely disabled human being. But that, to me, is difficult to accept.

    It is also the case that this proposal relies on non-existent technology. Thus far it isn’t clear cloning as asserted is possible. It also obviously doesn’t achieve its main aim – placating the “life begins at conception” crowd. (Although it does appear acceptable to many who reject regular stem cells from embryos) I was more interested to see if it would placate the Mormons the way it has Mitt Romney. Still, I think the proposal raises the interesting issue of just what an embryo is anyway.

  15. I’m confused. Does this process take a cell from an adult, clone it, and take DNA out of it making it sort of like a blank cell that can be turned into anything?

  16. I’m confused. Does this process take a cell from an adult, clone it, and take DNA out of it making it sort of like a blank cell that can be turned into anything? And there is also mention of using an egg. As in a woman’s egg?

  17. Here is a dilemma that might be considered. I know a young man (still in high school) who, until a year ago, was a vibrant, athletic, individual who had a bright future ahead of him.
    Then he was diagnosed with cancer. After many rounds of chemo etc. he has become a shell of his former person. The cancer has now spread to his kidneys and liver.
    The only hope he has for survival is stem cell implants of some sort. They have tried using his own stem cells but they proved useless. Stem cells from someone outside the country have become available. His chances of recovery are remote at this stage, but what would his chances be if he were ten years down the road and stem cell research had been allowed to develop.
    Life is sacred. That statement, however, seems to beg the question – which life. Is the one currently being lived more or less sacred than the life that has not been created but has potential. Are we under no obligation to do all we can to preserve life that exists and only obligated to ensure that the potential that exists in a cell be kept sacrosanct?

  18. I believe JKS that the theory is to take an adult cell, genetically manipulate it, then put it into an other cell where it can be turned into anything.

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