Sunday, October 18, 2009

Boost for 'Ethical' Stem Cells

BBC report today on a new advance in adult stem cell research:

US researchers have found a way to dramatically increase the harvest of stem cells from adult tissue.

It is a practical step forward in techniques to produce large numbers of stem cells without using embryos.

Using three drug-like chemicals, the team made the procedure 200 times more efficient and twice as fast, the Nature Methods journal reported. It is hoped stem cells could one day be widely used to repair damaged tissue in diseases and after injuries.

The more can be done with adult stem cells, the better. The creation of embryos primarily to use them as bit parts for treatment of others is a major ethical problem, and from what I gather, despite it being approved by Parliament last year, there isn't that much funding for embryo stem cell research. If the same therapies can be found through using adult stem cells instead, then that seems to be a win-win.


  1. Why is this a major ethical problem?

    I've seen plenty of examples of Christians objecting to this line of scientific enquiry (I'm thinking of Cardinal Murphy O'Conner and his incredibly unhelpful "Frankenstein Science" comment in the media last year) but I've never actually heard the underlying theological reasoning behind this view?

  2. The most vehement objectors to this tend to be Catholics, based on their official doctrine that life begins at conception. I'm not sure I go that far, but even as a potential human life I'd want to argue that the human embryo is precious, and that creating embryonic humans in order to use them in therapies raises some big issues about what it means to be human, when does life start, when (if ever) is it appropriate to use people as means, rather than ends etc.

    Theologically, there are several strands:
    - 'Don't kill', which is at the root of thinking about this, abortion law, just war theory, and a whole range of other issues. This is a principle most of us subscribe to, but the debate is about its application.

    - There's a Psalm which talks about God 'knitting us together in our mothers womb', (139 I think), and coupled with the ante-natal stories on Jesus and John the Baptist this gives a value on life before birth, as well as afterwards. The Christian value on protecting the vulnerable is applied to children both before and after birth.

    - The other theological line would be about the right place of humanity in the created order. What does it mean to 'fill the earth and subdue it', and to have 'dominion'. Again, that's not just about embryo research, it also informs Christian thinking about the environment, justice, wealth creation and distribution etc. But there's also an instinctive caution about anything which looks like 'playing God'.

    That's pretty simplistic, and others have probably put it more comprehensively and clearly.

    Against all of this, of course, is the potential benefits of stem cell research for sufferers. That in turn saves lives, and protects the vulnerable. So some of these arguments cut both ways.

  3. Thanks for your answer David, its rare that you see the counter arguments made clearly, more often that not its only the scare mongers and their "sound bites" that make it into the press, mind you I suppose that says more about our press than anything else.

    I would agree that Human embryo's are precious and need to be protected (as a general rule), although, my understanding was that ES cells were only used from unwanted and excess embryo's from IVF clinics and had to be donated (the alternative for these cells is essentially the waste bin). As far as I'm aware embryo's are not "made" (i.e. the old fashioned way) for this purpose, certainly the 1990 legislation and 2001/2 House of Lords report are clear about this. I suppose you might consider the development of the cells as "making" but it's arguable, it's more about providing an environment where the cells can divide to increase yields to useful levels.

    I can completely see the "playing God" argument, even as a metaphor, if there is a possibility that suffering will be increased rather than reduced or there is potential for exploitation or recklessness then we need to tread carefully. The "don't kill" argument seems arbitrary, i.e. we shouldn't kill stem cells but we can let them grow and become blood cells then destroy them and that's ok?; doesn't make any sense to me.

    From the science understanding point of view I think it's important to realise that we're talking about "cells" and not "people" at this point, and almost every cell in our body has the "potential" to become a person (theoretically), we destroy more cells when we pick our nose than exist within embryo's of this age.

  4. Thanks Steve. I think there is a difference between embryonic cells and bits of my nose: bits of my nose aren't on their way to becoming a human life, whilst fertilised embryos normally are. However if we do develop the science to grow living creatures from bogeys, then I'm out of here!

    The question is at what point does this collection of cells become more than just a collection of cells? I'm a collection of cells right now, but that sort of reductionism doesn't do justice to me as a human life. The 'life begins at conception' line marks this moment right at one end of the spectrum - I think it's appealing partly because it's much simpler than making fine judgements at 9 weeks or 15 weeks or whatever the alternatives are. Yes it's only cells, but it's the cells of a human embryo. When do we start talking about a 'person', and what are the marks of being a person which make an ethical difference?

  5. D, I can certainly agree that this argument would represent the "intuitive" point of view, but factually embryonic cells are indeed made of the same stuff that your nose is (although my 8 year old son would be quite happy to elevate the status of bogeys!) It's is only law that's stopping us making new embryo's from other body cells via cloning, which in turn is not that different from artificial selection, something we have been doing for millennia. The key is the nucleic material of course, that's more or less the same in every cell.

    As far as we know, life, actually began some 4 billion years ago, it has been a continuous line ever since, sperms and eggs are "alive" in the sense that a fertilised embryo is "alive", so choosing fertilisation as the start point for life is about as arbitrary as choosing 18 as the start point for adulthood or menopause as the start point for death.

    My own view is that a better measure might be one of the capability to suffer; once an organism is capable of that then we should think twice about fiddling; at least this takes account of the (real) thing that means we are alive, i.e. our conciousness.

  6. I'm now struggling to remember the marks of a living organism we were once taught in Biology, including things like Respiration, Reproduction, Excretion, Sensitivity etc., I have a vague memory that there were 7 or 8 of them.

    Can a plant suffer? If the marker for 'sanctity' or 'inviolability' or whatever we want to call it is suffering and consciousness, then that takes us into the realm of animal suffering, and whether there can be any disctinctive moral rules applied to humans. Intuitively (!) we'd want to say that there's something about human life which makes it more special than animal life, otherwise we'd have animal hospitals on the NHS. If that's simply about quantity - of consciousness, ability to suffer etc., then again, where do we draw the line? And what about people who, due to disability, brain damage etc., have lower capabilities than certain animals?

    This is the kind of thing which pushes me back towards saying there's something innately valuable about human life, and that there's something innately dangerous as just talking about us as collections of cells, or bundles of experiences. The higher level of description: an embryo, a person, a creature, carries moral weight as well.

  7. Yes I remember those, I seem to remember that bacteria qualify but viruses don't, I always found that a bit disconcerting since the little buggers give us so much trouble!

    I would say that we are distinct too, but I would also favour extending "human" rights (if there is such a thing?) to other higher primates simply because they are so demonstrably similar to us. Self awareness might be a good indicator of an appropriate level of conciousness for this.

    As for plants, I don't know, I would guess by some measures more complex ones (like trees etc.) might be capable of suffering (you've got me sounding like a tree hugger now! :), things like algae probably not; my hypothesis is clearly not fully formed!

    Interesting topic though.