Feb 28, 2011

Embryonic stem cells without embryo destruction

The ethical debate concerning stem cell research tends to assume that harvesting human embryonic stem cells (HESCs) requires destroying embryos. But this assumption is mistaken. As early as 2006, scientists showed that a single-cell biopsy technique could be used to produce embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryo itself. The technique was developed by Advanced Cell Technology, which has just been awarded a patent for its process.

The availability of non-destructive techniques for developing HESCs introduces some complexity into the ethical debate on stem cell research. For those who view the embryo as having some kind of moral status --whether personhood or something weaker--, this development opens up the possibility that embryonic stem cell research could be just as morally permissible as adult stem cell research. (Though the latter also presents ethical issues, as I've discussed previously.) However, non-destructive techniques may still present concerns for proponents of embryonic moral status. When the single-cell biopsy technique is performed, the embryo is at the 8-cell stage of development. Even though the embryo survives the biopsy, one might ask whether the embryo is harmed in some way by the procedure. If one sees the procedure as harmful, there will then be the further question of whether the harm is serious enough to constitute a compelling objection to using the procedure. This question, in turn, is complicated by the fact that embryonic stem cells may be therapeutically equivalent to adult stem cells.

A final question to consider is the extent to which the non-embryo destructive technique ACT has developed will be widely used by stem cell researchers now that it is covered under a patent.

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