Human Exceptionalism

A Tale of Two Cadaver Cell Trials

In the UK, an adult stem cell trial using cadaver cells will begin seeking to cure blindness. From the story:[

[A] two-year trial involving 20 patients with corneal blindness will begin this month at the Princess Alexandra Eye Pavilion in Edinburgh and the Gartnavel General Hospital in Glasgow. The treatment being used involves using the stem cells of dead adult donors, rather than the more controversial research involving embryonic stem cells, and if successful could help millions of people around the world who suffer from corneal blindness, around 80 percent of whom are elderly.

As part of the process, adult stem cells are cultivated and then transplanted onto the cornea’s surface. “This study is the first of its kind anywhere in the world and it is exciting to be involved in such groundbreaking work,” said Professor Bal Dhillon, who is heading the trial.

More controversially, scientists expect to use fetal tissue in an attempt to treat stroke injuries:

Doctors are hoping to launch the world’s first trial for a treatment that aims to improve the quality of life for thousands of stroke victims on patients in Glasgow in June, although the procedure must still be approved by an ethics committee.

The treatment, which uses cells taken from an aborted foetus that are to be injected into the brains of stroke victims to see if they can effectively regenerate damaged areas, was developed by Britain-based company ReNeuron. “That single cell was expanded by means of technology so we can have something to treat many, many thousands of patients,” said ReNeuron founder John Sindon, who is working with consultant doctor Keith Muir on the planned trial at Southern General Hospital in Glasgow. “You could make the argument that it would have otherwise gone to waste. The reality is that we’re trying to turn that into something with a lasting effect.”

Interesting that Dr. Muir seems so defensive.

Many SHSers may disagree with me, but I do think there is an ethical distinction to be made between an embryonic stem cell experiment in which a nascent human life is destroyed for the purpose of research, and the fetal experiment which will use tissue taken from a fetal cadaver who wasn’t killed in order to obtain the cells.

Think of this analogy using the eye stem cell experiment mentioned above: ESCR would be akin to a murderer executed for his eye stem cells, while the fetal tissue experiment would be analogous to adult stem cells taken from a prisoner executed without thought of how his body parts might be used after death. If one opposes capital punishment (and lets not argue that issue here), both executions would be wrong, and no subsequent instrumental use of tissues would justify the death. But using the body parts of the second prisoner after his death wouldn’t in and of itself be unethical. Or am I wrong in this comparison?

On a different note, using fetal tissue to treat neural insults has been tried in the early 1990s in an attempt to ameliorate the effects of Parkinson’s–with devastating results: Many of the patients experiences such severe side effects that the trials were halted. So, I hope the ethics committee–such as they are these days–treads very carefully.


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