There is no question that embryonic stem cell research is one of the most controversial issues of our time, because it deals with the fundamental precepts of life itself. Is a human embryo a life, a human being, or the incipient form of a life yet to be realized? It is a difficult question and when you put it to the general population you will get a set of answers covering the full spectrum of moral, political, religious and scientific perspectives.
In 1996, when the announcement that the DNA of an adult sheep was successfully cloned in an embryonic stem cell to produce Dolly, a morass of new bio-ethical concerns surfaced inside and outside the secluded halls of the biological sciences. Had scientists crossed the line of ethical restraint? If so, where is that line and when does permissible biological experimentation become Frankensteinism?
It is a dilemma that scientists and the public at large have debated ever since. Fortunately, however, it did not take science long to establish some ethical guidelines at least for those who will subscribe to them to follow. This does not preclude the possibility that there will always be rogue elements among any sector of the populous who take personal license to do what ever they want, irregardless of any standard of ethical behavior. But there is little that can be done to preclude such renegades from making it tougher for those who do follow ethical guidelines to do good science. Furthermore, coming up with a single standard everyone can agree to, is about as difficult as coming up with a consensus of opinion on single payer and the public health option with respect to medical insurance reform; it's not going to happen. But there are some provisions of ethical standard that most researchers in the field of stem cell research are in agreement on.
The vast majority of stem cell researchers are in agreement that human being should not be cloned for any reason, if for no other reason than the outcome of such an experiment is unpredictable. Among this vast demographic, a smaller group, but still a majority voice, feel that human cloning, beyond that of specific tissues or organs, would be immoral.
NON-HUMAN ANIMAL CLONING
A wealth of information was gained from the Dolly experiment and many things were learned about DNA which can and have been directly applied in research for cures to disease, pharmaceutical development and the general understanding of nucleic acid science. At one end of the spectrum, there are those opposed to any experimental research on animals and at the other, those who would argue that millions of human lives have been saved because surgical procedures, drugs, vaccines and therapies have been developed using animals for experimentation. With respect to stem cell research ethics, this is a gray area that requires further refinements.
Selective breeding and hybridism are certainly not new concepts. In fact, humans have practiced selective breeding for thousands of years. But when you throw the possibility of selecting specific genes at the embryonic level to produce a specific result, ethical practice becomes a big issue. Let's say, that you could take cells from a embryo to determine if a gene for a specific disease was apparent and then terminate the embryos existence if it was found to be there? Would this be ethical? What if you could swap a chromosome with such defective gene with one that was not defective, essentially extricating the bad gene and replacing it with a good one so that the resulting fully developed human and its offspring would be free of the disease? Methods like this could be used to eradicate many genetically inherited diseases in a single generation, without infringing on anybodies right to procreate. But would these techniques cross a yet to be identified line of ethical practice with respect to stem cells?
Gene splicing and synthetic production of hormones has become a critical supply of insulin for diabetics, blood clotting factor for hemophiliacs, human growth hormone and other life saving medicines. Today, companies like Genentech are taking the next step, using stem cells to make glands and other body parts. For instance, in a case involving adult stem cells taken from the prostate of a mouse, Genentech's researchers were able to generate an entirely new prostate gland. Let's face it, the demand for livers, kidneys, hearts and other body parts for transplant greatly exceeds the supply, and if someone can clone new ones using ones own DNA, thus totally eliminating rejection issues, a whole new multi-billion dollar industry of organ cloning will soon materialize. But is this ethical, especially if embryonic stem cells are involved?
BONE MARROW DONORS
Imagine that your child with a rare blood type, or other unique genetic condition, has been diagnosed with leukemia or lymphoma. The doctors inform you that the only chance of saving the child's life is a high dosage chemotherapy followed by a bone marrow transplant. The only problem is however, that only one in millions of people would be a suitable bone marrow donor and finding such person would be a needle in a haystack paradox, your child likely having succumbed long before the right donor can be found. But there is another option. Assuming the mother still has viable eggs which can be harvested, another child could be conceived with the exact same genetic make up and eventually become the needed donor. This is not a what if, this is a scenario that has already happened and played out successfully. The question is, is it ethical?
We have covered five areas of ethical concern with respect to embryonic stem cell research. There are likely more to consider, but these instances suffice to demonstrate the ethical concerns which researchers and society in general must address. Various organizations have already propose bioethics guidelines for stem cell research, some being generally accepted, others contested by one faction or another. The only thing for sure, is that much more work is needed to define a course of ethical conduct which can be reflected with legislative statute. The problem then, however, will be how to get the whole world to agree to uphold such edicts so that we don't have some rogue nation selling body organs and transplant procedures illegal in just about every other country.