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Embryonic stem cells without embryos?

24 November 2004
By BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 286

An American bioethicist has claimed that it is possible to create cells equivalent to embryonic stem cells (ES cells)without creating an embryo. Dr William Hurlbut, from Stanford University, says that it is possible to using somatic cell cloning technology to create something that could never become an embryo, therefore avoiding the problem that many people have with embryo and stem cell research: the destruction of embryos.

Hurlbut, a known opponent of research involving the destruction of embryos, is also a member of the President's Council on Bioethics. He has travelled the US in an attempt to develop and promote his idea, which he calls 'altered nuclear transfer', among scientists and ethicists. The procedure he proposes is similar to that which is used to create cloned embryos: scientists would remove the nucleus (which contains the genetic material, DNA) from a donor cell and place it into a human egg cell that has had its own nucleus removed. But by genetically manipulating the DNA from the donor cell's DNA before it is inserted into the egg, Hurlbut says, the cells of the egg can be prevented from organising themselves into a human embryo. He says the donor DNA can be altered to prevent development of the trophectoderm (a cell mass that eventually forms the placenta) - without this, the cell can never be an embryo, and certainly could not develop to become a fetus. The 'egg' - which would eventually die - would then be induced to begin cell division and the production of 'embryonic-type' stem cell. Hurlbut says this means 'the embryo is forming', but 'unless it forms itself properly, it is not an embryo'. Hurlbut believes that if critics of embryo research accept his technique as raising no ethical arguments, it could provide a way for scientists, especially in the US, to create new human ES cells with government funding. The use of federal funds for stem cell research involving the destruction of embryos has been prohibited by Bush since 9 August 2001. Dr James Battey, chairman of the stem-cell task force at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said that if Bush and his advisers (including the Council on Bioethics) were convinced that Hurlbut's technique does not involve the creation and destruction of human embryos, the president may allow federal funding for the work.

According to a report in the Boston Globe, Hurlbut's technique is favoured by leading opponents of ES cell research, including many conservative ethicists and Christian leaders. Archbishop William Levada, of San Francisco, was 'sufficiently impressed' to write to President Bush in support of the idea. Now Hurlbut plans to table his proposal in the bioethics council. It remains to be seen whether he can convince them, and others, that he is not simply creating embryos by cloning. But given his background and vociferous opposition to embryo research, some may be convinced: 'Just given who is saying this, one of the best informed and most respected thinkers on the conservative side, this is something I take seriously', said Nigel Cameron, director of a bioethics think tank in Illinois. 'I think it has enormous promise', he added.

New technique eyed in stem-cell debate
The Boston Globe |  21 November 2004
Other bioethicists have tried to avoid a moral controversy
The Boston Globe |  21 November 2004
Scientist Proposes Technique To Create Human Embryonic Stem Cells Without Destroying Embryos
Kaiser Network |  22 November 2004
29 August 2006 - by Heidi Nicholl 
New research published in the journal Nature describes how a single cell taken from an IVF embryo, using a technique similar to pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), can be used to create embryonic stem (ES) cell lines. The new method leaves the embryo otherwise intact and able, in...
29 August 2006 - by Josephine Quintavalle 
The news last week that Robert Lanza's team at Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) had developed a compromise way of creating embryonic stem (ES) cells from human embryos, without killing them, brought a temporary cease-fire to the battle surrounding this contentious area of stem cell research. The international media was excited...
16 May 2005 - by BioNews 
The US President's Council on Bioethics has published a report on alternatives to human embryonic stem (ES) cells, which do not involve the destruction of embryos. The document, entitled 'Alternative sources of pluripotent stem cells', looks at ways of extending the number of cell-lines available to federally funded stem cell...
6 December 2004 - by Dr Kirsty Horsey 
Recent news reports have highlighted the fact that scientists are searching for a way to create human embryonic stem (ES) cells without destroying human embryos. Normally, the derivation of ES cells requires that the embryo they came from be destroyed in the process. Many people have no ethical problem with...
2 December 2004 - by BioNews 
A method for persuading human eggs to start dividing as though they have been fertilised could provide a less controversial source of embryonic stem (ES) cells, say UK researchers. The scientists, based at the University of Wales in Cardiff, also say that the technique might help improve the success rate...
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