March 5, 2024

Scientists and bioethicists puzzled by new stem cell options

The head of the US President’s Council on Bioethics, Dr Leon Kass, says that he supports further study of two ethically puzzling alternatives to conventional embryonic stem cell research. Both proposals were presented at the Council’s first meeting since November’s presidential election. “I think these are two extremely interesting, very creative proposals,” said Dr Kass.

The first of these is a suggestion by Dr William Hurlbut, a Stanford bioethicist on the Council. He says that clones can be genetically engineered to develop into beings which cannot properly be described as human embryos but will still yield embryonic stem cells (see BioEdge 143). The second was put forward by two scientists from Columbia University, in New York. Their view is that many of the spare” frozen IVF embryos are actually dead, but they can still yield viable stem cells. If, they argue, it is ethical to use organs from brain-dead adult patients, isn’t it ethical to use stem cells from dead embryos? Their idea was first published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation last month.

Both methods are so unusual that they push conventional understanding of human life to the limit. As a result they prompted an unexpected range of reactions from politicians, ethicists and scientists who have been following the progress of stem cell research. The conservative Family Research Council condemned Hurlbut’s idea, even though it shares his views on the moral status of human embryos. Senator Sam Brownback, a strong opponent of embryonic stem cell research, was also sceptical, while his ally, Representative Dave Weldon, regarded it as “interesting”.

Council member Diana Schaub, who is aligned with the moral conservatives, welcomed the proposals as “almost too good to be true”, while a more liberal council member, Michael S. Gazzinga, believes that studying these methods would divert resources from other important work.