March 3, 2024

Stem cell opponents cautiously back an alternative

The chief opponents of embryonic stem cell research in the US, Republicans and the Catholic Church, are beginning to back alternative techniques of creating the cells for research and therapies which do not destroy embryos. Most stem cell scientists are sceptical of the largely theoretical proposal, but Dr William Hurlbut, of Stanford University, has won over his colleagues on the President’s Council on Bioethics. President Bush has repeatedly said that he would veto any bill promoting standard embryonic stem cell research, but he is reportedly interested in Hurlbut’s ideas.

There are four avenues — all largely untested at the moment — of creating embryonic stem cell lines without destroying an embryo. The first is to derive them from “dead” embryos retrieved from IVF clinics. Another is to extract them from two-day-old embryos using a non-lethal biopsy technique. A third is to wind the clock back for adult stem cells so that they become pluripotent, like embryonic stem cells.

The fourth, and most novel idea, is to develop stem cells from genetically altered cells which could never develop into an embryo. According to one of its champions, Professor Robert George, of Princeton University, “we would reasonably expect to obtain precisely the type of stem cells desired by advocates of embryonic stem-cell research, without ever creating or killing embryos. The cells used would not be embryos and would at no point go through an embryonic stage. Embryogenesis would never occur.”

Dr Hurlbut has been lobbying hard for his proposals, despite the scorn of many stem cell scientists and quizzical looks by some of his usual allies. Since embryonic stem cells are widely believed to be immensely promising for many kinds of medical treatments, opposing their use on ethical grounds is viewed by many Americans as retrograde and unscientific. So opponents of destructive embryo research are slowly warming to Hurlbut’s proposals as a way of backing scientific progress without sacrificing principle.

If animal trials show the technique to work as planned, and the eggs needed for the technique can be obtained in an ethical manner, it could provide a morally acceptable way to pursue biomedical research with these cells,” says Richard Doerflinger, a spokesman for the US Catholic bishops. A number of leading Catholics, including the Archbishop of Newark, featured amongst 35 experts in medicine and ethics who recently signed a letter of support.