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When is an embryo not an embryo?

6 December 2004
By Dr Kirsty Horsey
reproduction editor, BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 287
Recent news reports have highlighted the fact that scientists are searching for a way to create human embryonic stem cells (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 this, as they do not believe an embryo is 'life', in the sense of it having personhood. Others see this as the lesser of two evils - the embryo is 'alive', but the ES cells that can be derived from it are useful in medical research into cures and treatments for many currently incurable or untreatable conditions. Also, ES cells may, in the future, be a valuable treatment in themselves, because they are able to develop into any other kind of body cell.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that the destruction of embryos - even for medical research - is murder. This ethical problem is worsened if embryos are created specifically for research, and are never intended to become a human baby. Hence the drive, particularly in the US, to create ES cells without first creating an embryo, and therefore without destroying one.

Last month, Dr William Hurlbut, a Stanford University bioethicist and member of the US President's Council on Bioethics (and known opponent of destructive embryo research), claimed a new technique could get round this ethical problem (see BioNews 286). Using cloning technology - the method used to create ES cells matched to their donor - he said it is possible to create 'something' that 'could never become an embryo'. This 'something' - which would eventually die - would then be induced to begin cell division and the production of 'embryonic-type' stem cells. Hurlbut says this means 'the embryo is forming', but argues that 'unless it forms itself properly, it is not an embryo'.

This week, as reported in BioNews, a team at the University of Wales in Cardiff has also put forward a new technique that avoids the destruction of embryos in ES cell research. Karl Swann, leader of the Welsh team, hopes to be the first to obtain ES cells from human 'parthenogenetic blastocysts'.

The President's Council on Bioethics has recently heard evidence on Hurlbut's technique, along with yet another new method of deriving ES cells without destroying embryos - this time 'harvesting' viable cells from embryos created for IVF but which 'have stopped developing and are functionally dead' (see recommends, below). Researchers say that taking the cells, which can grow into stem cells, is 'analogous to removing organs of brain-dead accident victims for transplant'.

While it may be commendable to seek ways to continue stem cell research without the destruction of embryos, these three methods just don't cut it. Although the researchers say that no embryo exists, and therefore no life has been destroyed, this is really a semantic issue, not a scientific one. As a representative of a UK pro-life group said of the Welsh research, she would be happier if it was 'beyond reasonable doubt' that a life could ever come into being. Human eggs have 'the potential for life' - and fertilised ones certainly do. Fertilising them in a different way, or waiting for the embryo to lose its viability, make may you feel better about not 'killing' it, but it is as much a tampering with life as embryo research is. It's just embryo research by a different name and may, perhaps, be less ethical than 'actual' embryo research, as the cells that are derived may not be as effective as 'real' ES cells.

The only ethical way for pro-lifers to get round the idea of stem cell research is to limit their support to the use of adult stem cells, as has ordinarily been the case. But their argument has always been that adult stem cells are as effective, if not more so, than ES cells and that, with research, treatments and cures could be forthcoming without the need to destroy embryos. This is one reason, for example, that the US administration spends far more money on adult stem cell research than it is willing to spend on ES cell research. However, it seems that the search for a way to obtain ES cells without destroying embryos flies in the face of adult stem cell politics - as if there is a realisation that ES cell research is also necessary, but not an admission that it is also ethically sound.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
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