"Guilt Free" Embryonic Stem Cells
The technique is called PGD or preimplantation genetic diagnosis. It was originally developed in the field of invitro fertilization. When the embryo is at a very early stage of development, often even before the blastocyst stage, a tiny amount of genetic material is taken. A microscopic breach of the cell wall would be made chemically, mechanically, or using a laser. And the embryo would regrow the lost material without any ill effect. Initially, that extracted cell has been used by concerned families to scan their perspective child for any number of genetic maladies. Robert Lanza and his research group at Advanced Cell Technology have succeeding in giving another purpose to that little snippet of biopsied genes... Using them to create new stem cell lines. The technique hasn't been perfected yet. After 91 PGD biopsies, only two new stem cell lines were created. But Lanza and his team have shown that the procedure is viable.
So that's it then. A new procedure that will allow us to create stem cell lines from embryos without effecting the embryos developmental potential. Does this mark the end of the stem cell debate? Are we to expect wide smiles and thunderous applause from both side of the isle? Hardly. If anything this new procedure has further stoked the fires of debate.
First of all we have the nature of the study Professor Lanza conducted created stem cell lines from PGD material. The team at Advanced Cell Technology used only 16 embryos for their study. To minimize the number of embryos to be manipulated, rather than performing 91 separate PGD on 91 separate embryos, they used only 16. Which means that multiple PDGs were performed on individual embryos, eventually harvesting all of their genetic material and destroying the embryos outright. This has raised the ire of the religious and "bio ethicists" created an uproar and cause outlets such as the New York Times, Nature, and The Scientist to carefully reword their coverage of this breakthrough. Noting that the embryos used were in fact destroyed, and it doesn't end there.
Those on the right are appreciative that scientists are looking for a way to avoid "killing" embryos, but they are also extremely critical of any embryonic research, believing that destruction of genetic material is tantamount to the destruction of the embryo. And they fear a trade or market will develop for embryos if there is ANY successful way to derive stem cells from them, whether it is harmful or not. But you expect flak from the bio-conservatives when it comes to embryo research of any kind. It's Bush's witless veto all over again. What is surprising is the response coming from those in favor of embryonic stem cell research.
Embryonic stem cell researchers are leery of any sort of practice that kowtows to the embryo hugging right wingers. Reaserching ways to avoid "killing" embryos just validates the side of the argument that embryos can be "killed" in the first place. Also some scientists feel that the limited genetic demographics of those that use IVF clinics would limit the usefulness of any stem cell lines derived from them. And others like Arthur Caplan see the catch 22 inherent in the system...
"if you are going to use blastomeres from embryos where would you get them. from human embryos! so either you make them just to get blastomeres which means destroying embryos and makes no sense or you get them at fertility clinics. but the only people who will let you pull a blastomere off of one of their embryos are people who dont plan to use them anyway! So they are going to destroy their embryos, making it senseless to use a blastomere."
There is validity to the points made by concerned stem cell researchers that have to fight tooth and nail for every bit of funding and political support they get. But the real matter of substance here is getting more stem cell lines. Perhaps techniques like this will lend a bit of credence to the superstitious right. Perhaps all the stem cell lines derived from WASP dominant IVF clinics wont be the most useful for curing diseases that target minorities. Maybe there is some faulty circular logic to the whole affair. But in the end, if the result of this breakthrough is more stem cell lines, access to government funding, and another tool in our stem cell harvesting arsenal, then I say have at it!
Now there are three legitimate criticisms coming from some research circles that raise some indisputable points. One is that this particular success has yet to be repeated outside of ACT's laboratory. We will definitely need positive verification before this discovery can move any further ahead. Another concern is whether stem cells created using this method will have the same miraculous properties of lines created using entire embryos. This I think is the most over riding concern, and will require further and very deep investigation. And lastly, "moral" concerns aside, will even a procedure that leaves an embryo unharmed satisfy our administration's draconian laws on stem cell funding? Or is this end run pointless to begin with?
Only time will tell whether this breakthrough will usher in a new era of stem cell research, or just be one more foot note in the history books when we look back at the early years of embryonic stem cells. It does seem to me that we are in a very dangerous place now, where scientific decisions are made not by scientists at all, but by lobbyists and politicians. I'll be keeping that in mind when the mid term elections roll around in November. And I'll be voting pro stem cell all the way. At this point I would even settle for one of those little check boxes on my tax form. "Do you want 35 dollars of your Federal Tax to go toward embryonic stem cell research? This will not effect your return." But of course that check box is needed to collect presidential election funds. Next time, maybe we should elect a scientist. [inspired by Wired's Bodyhack Blog]
"I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother wants us to." - Willard Gaylin