Human Exceptionalism

Adult (Fetal) Stem Cell Trial for Spinal Cord Injury Presents New Ethical Questions

Neural stem cells from fetuses have received permission for human trials. From the Wall Street Journal story:

StemCells, Inc. announced today that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized the Company’s Investigational New Drug (IND) application for clinical testing of the Company’s proprietary human neural stem cells as a treatment for spinal cord injury. As a first action under this IND, the Company is working to open U.S. sites for its Phase I/II clinical trial for chronic spinal cord injury, which is currently underway in Switzerland and Canada.

“This IND is a significant step forward for our spinal cord injury program,” said Stephen Huhn, MD, FACS, FAAP, Vice President, CNS Clinical Research at StemCells, Inc. “With regulatory authorization from Switzerland, Canada and now the United States, we have the first international trial of a stem cell therapy for spinal cord injury.

The point here is to restore some feeling, not allow people to walk:

Patients will be evaluated regularly in the post-transplant period in order to monitor and assess the safety of the HuCNS-SC cells, the surgery and the immunosuppression, as well as to measure any change in neurological function below the injury site. Preliminary efficacy will be evaluated based on defined clinical endpoints, such as changes in sensation, motor function and bowel/bladder function.

Three patients have already had some success with this technique.

It is worth noting here that other adult stem cell trials–using the patients’ own tissues–are ongoing, for example, involving olfactory stem cells. These are ethically uncontentious.

UPDATE: The company says in its publicity, that these are “adult” stem cells. And that is true. But it turns out they are fetal in origin–which I didn’t know when I wrote the original post. So, I have modified the post accordingly–changing the title and some of the text. I apologize for any confusion.

Some are having a good chuckle about my mistake in the Twitterverse. Let them. But there is a reason the company doesn’t openly tout the original source of the neural cells. There are real and substantial ethical issues to consider using fetal tissue from abortions as a medium for medical treatments.

For example, were the cadavers made dead to obtain the stem cells (almost surely not). Does that matter? And if fetal stem cells turn out to provide efficacious treatments not available through other means, could that lead to fetal farming, e.g., creating custom made fetuses for use in bioscience? That has already been proposed in some quarters.

And here’s the bottom line each one of us may have to decide: If a legally available treatment comes from what you perceive to be a wholly unethical source, do you take it, or leave it?  What if it’s your spouse or child?  These are the kind of questions that may be all too real in the not very distant future. The time to ponder them is now.

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