January 18, 2008
When scientists announced a decade ago they had isolated human cells with the potential to become virtually any type of cell or tissue in the body, a storm of controversy followed that still rages in some circles today.
On one side are supporters who see the medical potential behind embryonic stem cell research, which may allow for the treatment of disease by injecting, into a patient, cells that are virtual blank slates – able to become any type of human cell.
On the other side are those raising moral, ethical and religious objections to the research, which they argue destroys a potential human life when scientists extract cells from a human embryo. While new research into stem cells continues on both embryonic and adult stem cells which are already programmed for a specific purpose, so too does the debate. At a recent conference hosted by the College of Law's Center for Law, Health & Society, lawmakers, researchers and audience members discussed and debated the scientific, religious, moral and technological issues behind the controversy.
Georgia Sen. David Adelman (D-Atlanta), one of two state lawmakers speaking at the conference, believes there is a moral obligation to allow for scientific research that most scientists agree will result in treatments for diseases that cause human suffering. He also believes the research has substantial economic impacts.
“I think it makes good business sense,” he said. “The truth is, the life sciences and bio-sciences industry should be one that's promoted.”
Taking a different tack, Sen. David Shafer (R-Duluth), the author of recent legislation that promotes the creation of a bank for the storage of umbilical cord blood rich in adult stem cells, argued embryonic stem cell research is unnecessary and fraught with complications.
“I believe that adult stem cell research is scientifically, logistically and medically superior,” Shafer said.
Georgia State University law professor Leslie Wolf, who served on a stem cell research advisory panel during her time at the University of California-San Francisco, said much of the debate centers around whether one views the embryo as a potential human life. In vitro fertilization treatments, for example, have the potential to create a number of embryos, not all of which may be ideal for implantation in the womb and will likely be discarded.
“The fact that it's in a petri dish, and there's no intention of it being implanted in the womb, that makes a difference for some,” she said.
Wolf also noted that recent work by several groups of scientists who have used adult skin cells to create a stem cell that acts like an embryonic stem cell isn't likely to end the controversy, as the process used to blank-out the cells uses a gene known to cause cancer.
“These cells may not be safe for the purpose we ultimately want them for – for transplantation,” Wolf said. “They're not ready for prime time right now.”
Georgetown University scholar Cynthia B. Cohen, a senior research fellow at the Kennedy Institute for Ethics, presented a number of religious views of the embryo at the heart of the stem cell research debate. The early Christian view, she said, held that there is a significant difference between embryos at the earliest stages of development, and embryos at later stages.
Saint Augustine, she said, held that the early embryo: “is a living shapeless thing … it could not be said that there is a living soul in that body.” All the same, he believed it was immoral to tamper with an embryo at any stage because it interfered with procreation. Later Catholic doctrine, Cohen said, abandoned the distinction and holds it is a mortal sin to destroy any embryo, regardless of its stage of development.
Cohen said there are a number of opinions among faiths in the Jewish tradition. There are also differences of opinion on the moral status of embryos within the Buddhist and Islamic traditions.
“We live in a democratic republic and we certainly need to hear from people with different religious beliefs,” Cohen said. “But we need to remember ours is a secular government and it has a tradition of separation of church and state.”
William B. Hurlbut, a consulting professor at the Neuroscience Institute of Stanford University, argued for more clear-cut regulation of stem cell research, noting that scientists may be apprehensive about some types of work, unsure of what they can and cannot do. He said guidelines on which types of research are permissible and which aren't would free scientists to work within established and known boundaries.
“If we draw a line … we could do a lot of good science that we can't do now,” he said.
Anne Drapkin Lyerly, an associate professor in the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities and History of Medicine at Duke University, said in the embryonic stem cell debate, the voices of the donor parents are often “muted if not absent.”
Donor parents are sometimes conflicted about whether to allow unused embryos to be destroyed, donated to science or donated to another infertile couple. Many embryos, Drapkin said, wind up stored in virtual perpetuity. One survey, she noted, found more than 400,000 embryos are being stored across the United States.
A study she conducted in 2006 and 2007 found that a majority of parents responding to a survey preferred to donate leftover embryos to scientific research. Many, she said, would rather the embryos benefit society in some way, but were apprehensive about allowing them to develop into a child in unknown circumstances as part of someone else's family and opposed simply discarding them.
“Of all the options, research was the most popular,” Drapkin said.
From a public policy perspective, Georgia Tech's Aaron Levine told the audience a patchwork of laws regulating the use of embryos in stem cell research may be leading to somewhat of a scientific migration. Levine is an assistant professor at Tech's School of Public Policy.
Since California voters approved a $3 billion initiative to fund stem cell research in 2004, Levine said, scores of scientists have moved there, some from overseas. Though other states where rules allow or even promote the work have attracted some, California has been most successful. His research showed that scientists working in the field who responded to a survey would overwhelmingly prefer to work in California.
“Anecdotal evidence in favor … of this stem cell gold rush is strong,” Levine said. “California has become a really big hub attracting stem cell scientists from around the world.”
The Jan. 10 conference was sponsored by the College of Law's Center for Law, Health & Society and co-sponsored by Georgia Tech's School of Public Policy and Center for Ethics and Technology.
Roberta Berry, Health Law faculty fellow at Georgia State's College of Law and an associate professor of public policy at Georgia Tech, said “We wanted to bring together a diverse group of scholars and policymakers who would share their knowledge of the science and their perspectives on the ethical and policy issues.
“Our goal was to expand our mutual understanding of the controversies surrounding stem cell research through a frank, informative, and thought-provoking discussion of the issues from a wide range of perspectives.”