2 August 2011, 16:31

Research on human embryonic stem cells is legal

At laboratory. Photo: EPA

At laboratory. Photo: EPA

At laboratory. Photo: EPA

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Rob Sachs: Last week the Obama Administration celebrated a victory, in which a federal judge ruled that federal-funded research on human embryonic stem cells is legal. The decision in Sherley vs. Sebelius case ended nearly a year of uncertainty over whether embryonic stem cells research supported by National Health Institute (NIH) would suddenly be shut down.

Rob Sachs: Last week the Obama Administration celebrated a victory, in which a federal judge ruled that federal-funded research on human embryonic stem cells is legal. The decision in Sherley vs. Sebelius case ended nearly a year of uncertainty over whether embryonic stem cells research supported by National Health Institute (NIH) would suddenly be shut down. The decision also caps a decade of ups and downs with stem cell policy that began in August 2001, when President George W. Bush announced NIH would fund some research on some emryotic stem cells, however only on existing cell lines.

Jessica Jordan: Voice of Russia’s Jamila Bey talked with one of the nation’s leading bioethicists on the topic, Dr. Ronald Lindsay, the author of Future Bioethics: Overcoming Taboos, Myths, and Dogmas and President and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, whose mission is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry and humanistic values.

Jamila Bey: Why are stem cells and the research thereof considered an issue of controversy?

Ronald Lindsay:  Because a certain segment of the population believes that embryo, or actually the zygote – that is the conceived egg – but certainly the embryo is entitled to if not all the protections of an adult human being than certainly most of protections. In other words, they do not see any significant moral distinction between an adult human being and an embryo. Therefore to take any action that will result in the destruction or the harming of an embryo is, for them, deeply immoral.

Jamila Bey:  Is it fair to say that that fundamental belief is the reason for the Dickey-Wicker amendment?

Ronald Lindsay:  That is correct.

Jamila Bey:  Can you tell us what exactly that amendment is and what it said?

Ronald Lindsay:  Sure. The Dickey-Wicker amendment prohibits the use of any federal funds that would result in the creation of an embryo for research purposes or would result in the destruction or injury of an embryo. So it’s clear, for example, that a scientist cannot receive a ten-million-dollar grant with the idea that he would use that money to fertilize eggs, create embryos that would then be used for whatever research purpose that would be prohibited under current federal law. What’s not clear and what some of the recent litigations have been about is that law also prevents the federal government from funding research on embryonic stem cell lines. The courts now have decided the law doesn’t prohibit that. That is done by a company, let’s say, and they do that with their own money, they then try to generate a stem cell line from that. That is, if the line of basic stem cells continues proliferating, they are allowed to do research on different types of organs because stem cells, of course, can turn into any type of organ in the body. And that research is what the federal government would like to fund. And now the courts have decided that, yes, they can fund that.

Jamila Bey:  What allows research to be done on the line of the stem cell?

Ronald Lindsay:  The process is that if the zygote is conceived, allowed to mature to a certain stage, typically, to an eight-cell stage called the blastocyst – and many of these embryos for research purposes are acquired from in vitro fertilization procedures, and what typically happens is that you generate a lot more embryos, or blastocysts, if you will, that can be used, because they like to have a surplus. Then, once the couple actually succeeds in getting one implanted in the woman, we have surplus embryos, or blastocysts, and the question arises what you do with them. Companies would like to use them and the government would like to use them or support research on them in ways that would help the general public. Or the alternative would be to simply throw them out in the trash. So, you have these blastocysts and what is done is that a cell or cells are removed from the blastocyst, which means that it would be prevented from further development. And then those cells are cultivated, and if the cultivation is successful, they are put in fluid, which allows them to maintain vitality. If the cultivation is successful they will begin to divide and multiply. Theoretically, they are immortal, or the line is immortal, in other ways you can keep going on and on and on with them. The reality is that after a certain number of years they tend to develop some mutations that are not useful for research or for other purposes. But, theoretically, they can keep dividing forever. Because in this early blastocyst stage there’s been no differentiation in terms of what purpose they might have ultimately served, if they had developed further, they can’t in fact be turned into different types of organs with the proper stimulation, the proper types of boost that the scientists would use to carry out the research. So, you start off the stem cell line, you can mix it, as you will, with muscle cells or nerve cells, with other types of tissue that can be part of a lung or a kidney and it’ll start to acquire the characteristics of that organ because it has that power called “pluripotency”, meaning that it has the power to turn into a number of different things. One of the things that people who are very much opposed to embryonic stem cell research tend to overlook is that you need a uterus – it’s like the role of woman is just completely blanked up. An embryo on its own is not going to develop into a fetus and then perhaps a baby. It needs an environment to do that and a uterus is not a passive receptacle – it provides a lot of nutrients and other genetic information that allows the embryo to turn into a fetus and then possibly to develop. So, if embryos are on their own, if there are excess embryos from IVF research, they are not going anywhere, they are not to develop into anything, that is to say they will be thrown into the trash.

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