TCS Daily

Stemming an Ethical Debate

By Nick Schulz - January 24, 2002 12:00 AM

In what could be an extraordinary and important discovery, scientists at the University of Minnesota believe "a stem cell has been found in adults that can turn into every single tissue in the body," the magazine The New Scientist is reporting this week.

The discovery, if confirmed, is significant in part because "until now, only stem cells from early embryos were thought to have such properties." It would mean that "cells from your own body could one day be turned into all sorts of perfectly matched replacement tissues and even organs."

Such a scientific development could help sidestep the ethical dilemma at the core of the debate over embryonic stem cell (ESC) research by simply making such research unnecessary. In ESC research, stem cell lines for research and study come from embryos.

Opponents of ESC research argue that any research on ESCs is morally troubling. They say that embryos are entitled to the same constitutional or moral rights and protections as other human beings and that creating these nascent lives in order to experiment on and destroy them is unethical.

Proponents of the research argue that the embryos from which the stem cells are derived are not human beings with the rights and protections afforded, say, adult human beings. Moreover, proponents cite the potential medical treatments and therapies -- from tissue transplantation without fear of rejection to organ generation to cancer treatments to treatments and therapies for stroke and Alzheimer's patients - and argue that denying individuals those treatments by banning research needs to be factored heavily into the picture.

Last year, the Bush administration decided to allow ESC research to continue with federal dollars, but it restricted the research to 60 or so existing stem cell lines from around the world. The administration reasoned that since the lines were derived from embryos that had already been destroyed that the life and death decision about them had been made already, so federal money wouldn't encourage harvesting embryos for research. The administration rejected the use of federal dollars for creation of new stem cells arguing such money would encourage such activity.

It is possible that this new development could circumvent the ethical dilemma the administration tried to traverse. As the New Scientist put it, "There would be no need to resort to therapeutic cloning -- cloning people to get matching stem cells from the resulting embryos. Nor would you have to genetically engineer embryonic stem cells (ESCs) to create a 'one cell fits all' line that does not trigger immune rejection. The discovery of such versatile adult stem cells will also fan the debate about whether embryonic stem cell research is justified."

Proponents of ESC and other stem cell research, though, still say such research may be needed. The science correspondent for Reason magazine, Ronald Bailey, who is writing a book about biotechnology, argues that case: "Research on all types of stem cells should go forward until we find the best types. Of course, it might well turn out that there is no 'best' type, but various types -- ESCs might be better for some purposes, umbilical cord stem cells for others, and adult stem cells for still more and these new multipotent adult progenitor cells for many others."

So even as prospects for stem cell research improves, the debate over the use embryonic stem cells in such research will carry on.

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