Ethicists Divided Over Human Embryo Research
Feb. 22, 2000 (Washington) -- Using existing cultured human embryo cells for
research purposes is morally acceptable, according to representatives of
several prominent bioethics committees. But the ethicists disagreed about
whether it is appropriate to create new cells from very early human
The panelists discussed controversial issues related to human embryo cell
research in Washington Tuesday at a symposium of the annual meeting of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
The specific cells that the panelists discussed are called "stem
cells," and they are cultured human cells that have the potential to
develop into almost any of the body's different tissues, such as bone, heart,
or brain tissue, according to John Gearhart, PhD, professor of gynecology and
obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. Such cells can
be obtained from certain tissues in adult humans, such as bone marrow, and from
very early human embryos.
Scientists believe that stem cell research could lead to a variety of new
therapies that might be able to repair damaged or diseased organs, says Thomas
Okarma, president and chief executive officer of Geron Corporation, a company
that funded much of the early research on human embryo stem cells.
Currently, "we are powerless to urge a diseased or damaged organ to
repair itself," Okarma says. "That's the excitement, and that's the
potential of this technology."
Gearhart says that stem cells from human embryos are different from stem
cells derived from adult tissues, and are better suited for both research and
medical purposes. That's because these cells generate youthful tissue rather
than aged tissue and are therefore better suited for tissue repair.
But some people, particularly those with pro-life views, think that cells
derived from human embryos should neither be created nor used for medical
purposes, regardless of the potential medical benefits, says Ronald Green, PhD,
director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Green
was a member of a panel convened by AAAS to tackle these thorny ethical
Both scientists and ethicists distinguish between two types of embryonic
stem cells: those obtained from very early human embryos produced by
fertilization in a test tube, and those produced by sperm or egg cells in the
early stages of development obtained from electively aborted fetuses,
Among the questions the panelists discussed was the issue of whether it's
all right to use existing stem cells for research. "What is the moral
status of human ... stem cells?" Green asked. For most ethicists, he says,
"this is not a particularly troubling question." That's because such
cells lack the ability to produce a living human embryo, he says.
But ethicists disagreed about whether it was acceptable to destroy a living
human embryo, even one with just a handful of cells, in order to create new
cells, says Mark Frankel, PhD, of AAAS, who presented the AAAS panel
recommendations. The AAAS panel recommended that researchers be able to use
existing cells, but declined to recommend the creation of new ones.