The NIH will soon be funding research into obtaining pluripotent stem cells from non embryonic sources. Wherever one stands on the Bush funding policy or human cloning research, this should be cause for celebration. After all, don't the scientists always say we should research all areas of the science?
Now, in Nature Reports Stem Cells
(of all places), Marcus Grompe of the Oregon Stem Cell Center writes that alternative methods are very much worth pursuing. Demonstrating how this issue cuts across many different areas of human thought and contemplation, Grompe discusses the issue of the soul--in a science journal
! From the column
To me, the very fact that embryos produced in IVF clinics become babies and eventually adult humans means that they are human (and have a human soul) from the very beginning. It also means that they have a special moral status and should not be destroyed for any reason, even for the creation of ES cell lines. In contrast, an entity that by its very constitution cannot develop as a human organism does not have a soul (or its proper or 'substantial' form) and hence is not an embryo, not a human organism at all.
Grompe criticizes both sides for hyping the current state of the science in both embryonic and adult stem cells, and proceeds to support alternative methods, two of which he believes hold great promise. The first is cell regression, in which adult cells may be able to be de-differentiated back to a stem cell state. He seems most enthusiastic about my good friend Bill Hurlbut's proposal for altered nuclear transfer, or ANT:
Contrary to some claims that this approach generates 'disabled embryos', it is reasonable to expect--based on studies with mice--that ANT attempted with human cells would not produce a living member of the human species. The idea is to use genetic modification in combination with somatic cell nuclear transfer into oocytes [eggs] to directly produce cells capable of generating pluripotent stem cells, but without making an embryo.
And he explains in scientific language that is a little too lengthy to quote here, why the cell mass created through ANT would not be an embryo. He concludes with a call for unity around research that is not morally contentious and can achieve social consensus.
In the meantime, I believe that the ethical concerns regarding the destruction of human life--however tiny and fragile--outweigh the potential benefits of producing new embryo-derived cell lines. This is a view shared by many of the general public. Clearly, the best way forward would be to find a technological solution that at once sustains social consensus and opens up biomedical advances.
Thanks for Marcus Grompe for writing such a good piece and to Nature Reports Stem Cells
for publishing it. In the current ideologically strident atmosphere that permeates the Science Establishment, it takes guts--especially for a scientist--to make such assertions in the face of the scientistic demagogues who readily castigate anyone with ethical objections to ESCR or human SCNT as "anti-science." Agree or disagree, Grompe's article is a must-read for anyone engaged in the great stem cell debate. Check it out.