Jun 10, 2011

Restricting Funds for Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Unintended Consequences?

A study in the June 10 issue of Cell suggests that restricting public funding for embryonic stem cell research (a popular position in the US among those who are pro-life) may actually hinder adult stem cell research, which is often touted by opponents of embryonic stem cell research as a morally superior alternative.

The reason for this is quite simple: to test the safety of therapies derived from adult stem cells, one generally must compare the adult stem cells to embryonic stem cells to see if they are more likely to mutate and thereby cause health risks to the recipients of the therapy. Thus, the study's authors suggest, bans on public funding for embryonic stem cell research may seriously hinder the therapeutic prospects of adult stem cell research.

This is an interesting argument, and one that opponents of embryonic stem cell research would do well to take seriously. There are some reasons that the argument may not be that forceful, however.

First, since adult stem cell research is quite new-- human pluripotent stem cells were derived without embryo destruction for the first time in 2007-- the need to test induced pluripotent stem cells against embryonic stem cells for therapeutic safety may decline in the future. It may initially be needed as a benchmark, but as techniques for deriving induced pluripotent stem cells continue to improve, there may be less of a demand for comparisons with embryonic stem cells.

Second, not all embryonic stem cell research involves destroying embryos. This means that opponents of embryo-destructive research can still support the use of some comparisons of adult stem cells with embryonic stem cells.

For these reasons, I suspect that the argument is weaker than the authors suggest. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research would do well to consider how policies might be crafted that would target embryo-destructive research without negatively impacting research that does not destroy embryos. It's also worth keeping in mind, as I've stressed previously, that adult stem cell research is not without its own ethical quandaries.

For all my posts on stem cell research ethics, follow this link.