Scientists, doctors work to nix embryos from stem cell research
A Stanford physician and bioethicist and two researchers from Oregon Health and Science University have teamed up to take the next step in eliminating the need to kill embryos for stem cells.
Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford and Oregonians Dr. Markus Grompe and Shoukhrat Mitalipov want to advance science while preserving moral principles. They are putting forward a technique called altered nuclear transfer.
The method could improve a breakthrough announced last fall in which scientists in the U.S. and Japan used viruses to coax adult cells to act like stem cells, taking on the ability to grow into different kinds of tissues. The possibility caused excitement because it promised healing without moral compromise, but viruses were seen as a risky way to spark the process, because of risks of disrupting cell behavior.
Altered nuclear transfer aims to create cells that are pluripotent — can become any tissue —without creating an embryo and without using a virus. The technique entails removing the nucleus of an egg and replacing it with another nucleus. In the new nucleus, an RNA agent has knocked out certain messenger substances, blocking the ability of cells to communicate as they naturally would to create an entire organism. What one gets is a mass of pluripotent cells that can be used, yet are not a constitutive part of any living being.
Dr. Hurlbut describes the result as a model airplane with the parts, but no glue. “You preempt life,” he says. “No living embryo is ever created.”
The work is going forward in monkeys here in Oregon.
While some ethicists say the mass of cells is a disabled embryo, a group of prominent Catholic philosophers disagrees and has signed on to the idea. That includes Bishop John Myers of Newark, N.J.
The debate over embryonic stem cells has been bad both for science and for religion — and damaging to the common good, Dr. Hurlbut said last week in a lecture at the University of Portland.
A member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Dr. Hurlbut gained advanced degrees in science at Stanford and did work in ethics and theology at Institut Catholique de Paris. He has written on the evolutionary origins of spiritual, moral and religious awareness.
Passions have run high over stem cells. Politicians who have voted against federal funding for research have been targeted in advertising as playing God, deciding who lives and dies.
And the unlocking of the human genome has begun a cascade of discoveries that will only continue to pit materiality against morality. The stem cell debate, Dr. Hurlbut says, is just the beginning. Soon to come are the mixture of human and animal tissues, artificial wombs and laboratory reproduction of spare organs using fetal parts.
“Obviously, these are not just questions for science alone but for the full breadth of human wisdom,” Dr. Hurlbut says.
In an interview with The Sentinel in 2006, Dr. Grompe said that Catholics may have to make a choice because it could well be that adult cells will not be able to be coaxed to be as useful as embryonic cells.
“There is a lot in favor of embryonic stem cells,” explained the member of St. John Fisher Parish in Portland. “But we need to make a choice based on ethics.”
Dr. Hurlbut affirmed that possibility last week.
“Embryonic stem cells may do things that adult ones cannot,” he said at the university, admitting that the truth will cause conflict.
Worldwide, four million embryos are frozen, one million of them in the U.S. They are left over from in vitro fertilization and most are castoffs, results of actions “unconstrained by forethought,” says Dr. Hurlbut.
The leading candidates for president seem prepared to have these frozen embryos used. That includes the Republican, Sen. John McCain.
There is no legal constraint on embryonic stem cell research itself, only on federal money for the research. A 1996 congressional amendment forbad federal funding for any act that would harm or destroy embryos. Hurlbut predicts that forces will soon try to overturn that provision.
“Yet even if use of these embryos becomes accepted policy and practice, we should be aware of something more complicated that is below the surface: there has been a slow but steady shift in our underlying attitude toward human life,” Dr. Hurlbut said.
“As we gain the powers of comprehension and control over our most basic biology, there is a transformation, not just in our physical being, but in our whole sense of who we are, and of our place and purpose within the natural order.”
Taking increased control over natural life processes causes a change in attitude and a loss of reverence and respect, he told listeners at UP.
“With each step, however benevolent the initial intention, there is a moral danger, a fracturing of matter and meaning that breaks the coherence and natural connections of life,” he said.
“With each step, the original radiance and vitality of the cosmos, its order, beauty and coherent moral meaning, are obscured by the conviction that all of living nature is mere matter and information, to be reshuffled and reassigned for the projects of the human will.”
Yet science, Hurlbut says, is meanwhile affirming the idea that life begins at conception. New discoveries show differentiation early on, cells communicating with one another to create a non-repeatable organism with latent potential.
“The act of fertilization is a leap from zero to everything,” Hurlbut says.
New insights, he explains, show the problem with laws like the one in place in Britain, where embryos can be used for research as long as they are 14 days old or younger. Hurlbut argues for a national standard on stem cells.
“Do we really want red state medicine and blue state medicine?” he asked. “Clearly both sides of this debate are defending human goods. On one side medical research. On the other side the fundamental dignity of human life.”
Dr. Hurlbut predicts a time when people will get therapy not by getting stem cells added to their systems, but by receiving some kind of agent that will “rev up” the stem cells already in the body.