A new ethical landscape of stem cell research?

The New York Times reported on two avenues of research on stem cells that appeared in this Monday’s issue of Nature. The work reported in them is pretty remarkable. The Nature articles both present techniques that could potentially be used to create stem cells without destroying embryos—the primary objection that many have to stem cell research. The methods are reported to have worked in mice, but have not been tested with human cells.

One of these methods also raises some interesting questions. Those of you interested in science fiction and looking for a project for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) might want to mull this over.

In the method I’m referring to, an egg is fertilized in vitro. This newly fertilized egg is allowed to divide until it reaches the 8 cell stage. One of these cells is than removed for the creation of stem cell lines, leaving the remaining 7 cell embryo capable of developing to term. This cell extraction method does work with humans, but the extracted cell is used in genetic screening. No human stem cells lines have ever been developed from such cells.

As stated in the New York Times article, this method does get around many of the ethical arguments against stem cell research. There are still those who object to in vitro fertilization, but they appear to be in the minority. I do wonder, though, if this technique might not open up a whole new set of ethical dilemmas.

In the New York Times article, Andrew R. La Barbera, scientific director of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, is quoted: “I suspect that indeed it will become routine to generate stem cells for everyone who undergoes preimplantation genetic diagnosis.” That viewpoint is considered “wildly speculative” by Brigid L. M. Hogan, an embryologist at Duke University (and probably many others).

Science fiction is supposed to be speculative, however. It seems unlikely that any embryo created the old-fashioned way would undergo preimplantation genetic testing, so they wouldn’t get their stem cell lines generated at conception. In vitro fertilization also isn’t cheap. Would in vitro fertilization provide an unfair health advantage to children born to wealthier parents? It’s already been demonstrated that health seems to be correlated with wealth. Will a gap in income lead to a greater gap in healthcare?

It’s probably far too early to worry about any of that yet. This technique has only been tested in mice, after all. However, if you happen to be bored during November, why not think it over with pen in hand (or fingers at keyboard).

This post refers to:

Wade, Nicholas. “Stem Cell Test Tried on Mice Saves Embryo.” New York Times. October 17, 2005

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