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.


  1. Matt,
    I have read all your posts on stem cell research and I particularly had an issue with your piece on adult stem cells that was published in The Public Discourse. I found your article to be filled with inaccuracies and straw man arguments; the first of which is that it is possible and practical to obtain embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryo. This has been routinely done since the late 70's via Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) for IVF. Since then, scientists have followed suit and been able to generate embryonic stem cell lines from embryos without destroying them (do a literature search on pubmed if you doubt me). So while there has been viability issues with respect to the generation of embryonic stem cell lines through its history, there are methods that preserve the embryo. With that said, one could still have a moral objection to this and still claim that embryo is being destroyed or a human life taken away if they define each as the entirety or the sum of all parts (in this case every single cell). This leads to the question of what is human life? I feel that you have failed to adequately define this terminology and from this you set up straw man arguments. Furthermore, your rationale behind gameteless reproduction comes off as being riddled with religious dogma from the Catholic Church (Richard Doerflinger, Deputy Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, commented: “With each new study it becomes more and more implausible to claim that scientists must rely on destruction of human embryos to achieve rapid progress in regenerative medicine.”...First, there are the moral issues connected with the procedure itself. Like Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT), the method used to clone Dolly in 1996, gameteless reproduction raises the question of the morality of cloning and other kinds of asexual reproduction, since it allows the creation of an embryo from one or more tissue donors....gameteless reproduction may erode the link between procreation and any kind of family context: single persons, for example, could create an embryo using only their genetic material. As a result, children could be increasingly—and tragically—viewed as products, rather than the fruit of a loving relationship. Most importantly, like other non-conjugal methods of conception that sever the procreative and unitive aspects of human sexuality, gameteless reproduction is intrinsically immoral). I think you make a fatal error by trying to draw a parallel between Dolly as that is not what the majority of the scientific community wants to do (although there may be some loon out there that does). The true promise of stem cell research is to generate tissues and possibly organs for individuals. Therefore, to assert that the real motive is to create walking, talking humans is a huge step. However, while I think cloning in the sense of Dolly could potentially create a genetic bottleneck that could put the human species at risk for a extinction in the event of a plague, I don't believe it to be intrinsically immoral. Gameteless reproduction could be a viable option for gay and lesbian couples who provide a loving environment. I could go on ad nauseum, but I think I made my point. You seem like a smart fellow and did a decent job at highlighted the main points, but I thought you missed a few things (as I mentioned above), that could make your argument better.

  2. Anonymous,

    As I said in this post and in a previous post devoted to that very question (http://theconsternationofphilosophy.blogspot.com/2011/02/embryonic-stem-cells-without-embryo.html), there is some embryonic stem cell research that does not destroy embryos, though I think embryo destructive research is much more common at present. (Please correct me if I'm wrong about that.) I did not address this issue in my Public Discourse piece, as it was mainly about ethical issues with adult stem cell research.

    For the reasons I gave in the Public Discourse piece, what I term 'gameteless reproduction' may become an important alternative to IVF, even if many of the scientists working with stem cells do not have such applications in mind. When we think about issues in bioethics, it's sensible to consider the possible applications of new technologies so that we can proactively develop sound policies, rather than scrambling to develop appropriate regulations after the fact.

  3. Matt,

    Your points are well received, but the basic science that will allow what you term "gameteless reproduction" to be an alternative would have to be done in order for it to be a secondary option. Since this is of low priority and that fact that I would highly doubt that this would be a PI's main project and futhermore would most likely not get funded, "gameteless reproduction" is dead in the water. Most likely any basic science that could contribute to an alternative would come as indirect findings that would be scattered across a variety of biological disciplines and would then takes years of costly testing to sift through. In short, what I am trying to say is that you are making a mountain out of a molehill and making false equivalencies by your parallels with Dolly.

    With that said and going full circle to your qualms with stem cell research, I still think you first have to define what is human life and give justification for your definition before you can proceed. How you define human life will be the cornerstone to your argument.


  4. TG,

    To address your last point, you're certainly right that a clear understanding of what counts as human life is very important. It seems surprisingly difficult to spell out what it means for anything to be alive, let alone what it means for something to be alive and human. (The literature on each of these questions is vast. One of the more influential recent discussions of them by a philosopher can be found in Part 1 of Michael Thompson's book 'Life and Action.')

    These questions are at least somewhat independent of questions of moral status, though. Once we know what something is, it's a further question what sort of moral status it has. With human beings, some writers distinguish between being a human being and being a person, where the latter term denotes a certain kind of important moral status. I should also mention that not everyone who thinks that embryos have some moral status (even if less than that of fulll personhood) think that embryos are living human beings. For some bioethicists (including some secular ones), even though the embryo is not a human being, it is still deserving of respect.

    These are not answers to your queries, of course, but I wanted to try to make the issue a little clearer at least. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Matt,

    Thanks for some clarification as well as the reference to Thompson's book. I guess the difficulty that I am having with respect to this topic and your argument comes from the fact that we are coming from two different disciplines; myself as a cell biologist/pharmacologist and you as a philosopher. While there may be instances of discrepancy of definition in my discipline, a precise definition that can be measured, quantified, or enumerated is paramount to the scientific method. Therefore, I am of the viewpoint that identity must come via this process. However, I realize that this is sort of "scientism" or "materialism" has been the critique of many philosophers, including some of which you even refer to in your blog, i.e. Gregory Peterson. I would argue that empiral methologies are the only way to obtain truths. We could disgress into metaphysics, but that may only muddy the waters. While I enjoy philosophy and have taken a couple of courses back in my undergrad days, I tend to have the opinion that one can take an already held notion and retrofit a rational argument to bolster it. Case-in-point would be why does an embryo deserve any more respect than say an egg or sperm? Or spider, ant or cockroach? Or why is non-conjugal reproduction instrinsically immoral? Having read your blogs, I would venture to guess that you would reference what other philosophers have said and put your own rational twist to it. Furthermore, I would argue that your own relgious bias would come into play, which would be a confounding factor to make a rational argument free from bias. Anyway just thought I would share some more of my thoughts.