March 5, 2024

Embryos have souls, says stem cell scientist

A leading US stem cell scientist has declared that embryos are human and have a human soul from the beginning of their existence. Writing in Nature Reports Stem Cells, Markus Grompe, the director of the Oregon Stem Cell Center, in Oregon, says that this implies that "they have a special moral status and should not be destroyed for any reason, even for the creation of [embryonic stem] cell lines".

Dr Grompe acknowledges that his position places him in a dilemma. "I have found myself in a conflict between my philosophical convictions on the one hand and the desire to exploit pluripotent stem cells for research and clinical applications on the other. I have also found myself in the cross fire in the public debate between the pro-ES cell and anti-ES cell camps."

Dr Grompe’s qualms are not religious, but philosophical in the Aristotelian tradition. The soul, he says, is "the unifying principle of its formation or organisation". The concept expresses the idea that "something more than the material from which it is constructed governs the nature of a being".

To negotiate a way forward, he supports alternative methods for producing pluripotent human stem cells which are nearly identical to embryo-derived stem cells. One such method is directly reprogramming adult cells back to a pluripotent state. This has already been proven in mice, but Dr Grompe feels that there are serious problems with reprogramming human cells at the moment. Another is altered nuclear transfer. This has been ridiculed by many scientists, but Dr Grompe feels that it could be "a powerful experimental system for studying reprogramming factors".

Both sides of the stem cell debate have been guilty of "half-truths, exaggeration and outright disinformation", he says. The pro-ES cell side has engaged in "public campaigns that have twisted scientific fact in sometimes grotesque ways". The anti-ES cell side has touted the virtues of adult stem cells unrealistically.

"The truth is that the potential of ES cells for curing human diseases is unknown. It is therefore factually wrong to state that limitations on ES cell research are preventing life-saving cures, and it is equally false to claim that ES cells have no therapeutic potential. At this point, we simply don’t know – and without the appropriate research, we will never know."