Monday, December 06, 2004

New kind of embryonic stem cells

The Washington Post (you might need to register) is reporting on 2 new options of obtaining embryonic stem cells that were recently presented to the President's Council on Bioethics.

Option 1: Embryos from IVF treatment that have stopped growing and are "functionally dead."

Option 2: Using a technique similar to somatic cell nuclear transfer (cloning) to create a bundle of cells that supposedly isn't an embryo but still has embryonic stem cells.

In the first technique, two Columbia University researchers "argued that a certain percentage of embryos created, frozen and later thawed for potential use in assisted-reproduction procedures are similar to brain-dead adults. The embryos no longer have the capacity for human life.

Cells have stopped dividing in those embryos, which in some cases account for about 60 percent of ones made in infertility treatments."

It seems that they aren't talking about the 400,000 supposedly "leftover" embryos but embryos that are planning on being implanted into a womb in the near future but were found to be untransplantable. Are there really that many of these "dead" embryos out there? Are we sure that they are "dead?" How many stem cell lines could we create?

In the second technique, from William Hurlbut, a member of the panel, "called his idea "altered nuclear transfer" -- a cloning procedure with one crucial alteration. One or more genes essential for normal embryonic development would be temporarily canceled or inactivated at the start. The cluster of growing and dividing cells that would be produced would have no capacity ever to develop into a human fetus. Consequently, it would not have the status of a person by anyone's definition, he argued."

I haven't heard the whole proposition but right now to me this simply sounds like creating some kind of defective cloned human embryo. The lack of capacity to develop into a human fetus doesn't mean that the creation isn't a human embryo. Will we be able to tell if this is really a non-human being that merely has human being parts or will it be something that we're always wondering about?

Though these new techniques might not necessitate the intentional killing of human beings (it's tough to tell from Post article) I'd still be skeptical.

1.) Even if they can get embryonic stem cells without killing embryos, I still don't think embryonic stem cells are the way to go. Wouldn't the cells still be prone to forming tumors and being rejected by the patient like the embryonic stem cells we have now?

2.) Practically speaking, will this kind of research ever be affordable to the average Joe with diabetes or Parkinson's? It just seems that this kind of stem cell research treatment will be just as unaffordable and difficult as any type of treatment from cloning.

3.) In terms of federal funding, if these techniques worked they would be new embryonic stem cell lines and not eligible for federal funding. So Bush would either need to reformulate his August 2001 policy or create some kind of loophole.

4.) Isn't this money better spent on research with adult stem cells and stem cells from umbilical cords? We already know that we can help people with this cells. Why not focus our attention and money there? The idea of exploring all areas of research can be very persuasive (especially if all areas are ethical) but it just seems that exploring all areas of research takes funds away from areas that have and are working.

The full text of the meeting is available online here. It's the transcript for Dec. 3. It's an interesting, though long, read if you get the chance.

After reading what Hurlbut is proposing and his answers to questions - it's fairly clear that this is currently an idea in the works (it may not even work with humans) and that he wants to make sure that an embryo isn't created in this processes. The language in the Post column that I quoted is not really the type of language that Hurlbut used in his presentation.

Hurlbut says of his proposal, "The crucial principle of any technological variation of altered nuclear transfer, however, must be the pre-emptive nature of the intervention. This process does not involve the creation of an embryo that is then altered to transform it into a non-embryonic entity. Rather the proposed genetic alteration is accomplished ab initio, the entity is brought into existence with a genetic structure insufficient to generate a human embryo."

Later on in the questioning he says, "I, as everybody in this council knows, have stood very strongly for the principle that human life is present from conception. When I looked at the scientific facts and I didn't come in like some rubber stamp agent of this counsel to do what somebody told me to do, I looked as plainly as I could and I simply could not think -- could not agree that the early embryo was, as some scientists are saying, an inchoate clump of cells. It's a living whole human being."

He wants to make sure embryos aren't being created.

His proposal is basically to take a gene out of a cell before putting that cell into an egg and zapping it. The lack of this gene basically then creates something similar to a hydatiform mole or teratoma that might still have stem cells.

It's interesting to see those on the Council use science to get around moral problems caused by the previous advancement of science (without moral safeguards) but I still can't see this as being practical medicine in the long or short run.

The text to Bush's August 9, 2001, decision says "we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life and death decision has already been made."


  1. Anonymous1:52 PM

    ""This represents a mere diversion from the true issues; those being the governing conglict with the church and the practice of eugenics. Read about Carrie Buck to get the idea. The government doesn't want the church to control the economics and needs a source of cheap labor as well as continuation of the upper class gene pool. The cloning of Low Grad Morons for cheap labor DOES NOT DIFFER TECHNICALLY from the cloning of bionically perfect specimens useful for the perpetuation of the upper-class gene pool.""

  2. Not sure if this would be covered by the Council's proposed Egg & Sperm law or not. I guess not, since that law is specifically about attempting to create a person. I agree with you that it is money and effort that should be spent elsewhere. And with the first comment that this is really about eugenics and population control, and anything that contributes to research on turning on and off genes contributes to eugenics.

    visit my blog at, help pass the egg and sperm law to prevent eugenics and preserve marriage, and eventually, i think restore equal reproductive rights in marriage (and therefore, end abortion)