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.