On Bioethics

catholic moral standing on the special ethics of life

Archive for Embryonic


Working days, nights and weekends, with criminal charges hanging over his head, disgraced stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk is trying to climb the steep hill to rehabilitation. Assisted by a team of 30 in a private lab south of Seoul, he is working on cloning animal embryos. A colleague told AP that he dreams of working with cloned human embryos again. “There are many good research results that we want to boast about,” she says.However, editors of leading journals are cautious. “Any submission form Dr Hwang would take into consideration the irreparable harm that his previous misconduct has inflicted on the scientific enterprise,” says Monica Bradford, executive editor of Science, one of the journals duped by the Korean. And Curt Civin, editor of Stem Cells, who was also a victim of his fraud, says that he would worry about recidivism.

Somewhat surprisingly, Harvard researcher George Daley told an international meeting of stem cell scientists in Australia recently that Hwang’s research was genuinely original. He had been the first to create stem cell lines from a parthenote, an activated, unfertilised egg. ~ AP, Jun 21; Nature Reports Stem Cells blog, Jun 18   



Another Australian state is on the road to approving therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem cell research. After a heated debate in the media, the lower house of the New South Parliament has voted 65 to 26 to support it, following the lead of its southern neighbour, Victoria. But generating even more controversy than the scientific and ethical issues of stem cell research were remarks by the outspoken Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell. He has had to weather a blizzard of criticism over his comment that Catholic parliamentarians faced unspecified “consequences” for their religious life if they supported the bill.Premier Morris Iemma, a Catholic, voted for the bill. “I’ve already thought seriously about this legislation and it passes all the ethical and moral issues that I need passed, and gives people hope,” he said. Emergency Services Minister Nathan Rees even suggested that Pell’s intervention might constitute contempt of parliament. This was also mooted on the other side of Australia, in Perth, where similar remarks made by Catholic Archbishop Barry Hickey were referred to that state’s parliamentary privileges committee. Speaker Fred Riebeling said they had been “threatening” to MPs.

Cardinal Pell, who funds adult stem cell research, was unmoved. “Adult stem cell has been much more productive than work on embryonic stem cells, which so far has proved to be a dead end. Little has been produced except massive grants for the researchers,” he argues. ~ Sydney Morning Herald, Jun 7


There was excitement, too, on Capitol Hill, in Washington DC, over the stunning new research, which appeared in the journal Nature just before the House of Representatives voted to loosen restrictions imposed by President Bush on funding for embryonic stem cell research. In any case it came too late to influence the passage of the bill, which failed to get the numbers required to override the expected presidential veto.Was it just a coincidence? Some legislators thought not. “It is ironic that every time we vote on this legislation, all of a sudden there is a major scientific discovery that basically says, ‘You don’t have to do stem cell research,'” says Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel. “Convenient timing,” said bioethicist Arthur Caplan.

However, the Washington Post consulted experts on probability. Happenstance — or an underhanded plot to sink the bill? Skulduggery by American opponents of stem cell research? By rival British researchers bent on world domination? The experts backed coincidence. “Papers are coming out about embryonic stem cells so regularly that the odds are going to be high that some will come out when Congress is voting on them,” says David Ropeik, a Harvard expert in risk assessment. ~ Washington Post, Jun 10


D-Day is approaching for embryonic stem cells, says the CEO of Geron, Tom Okarma. The world’s first clinical trial will begin early next year on patients with spinal cord injury in six trauma centres across the US.

Because of the intense scrutiny that these trials are sure to receive from the US Food and Drug Administration, from the media, and from hostile critics of the ethically contentious technology, extensive preparatory work has taken place. Animal tests have already showed that nerve cells grown from human embryonic stem cells can repair spinal cord injuries in rats. “Paralysed rats can walk again,” says the Financial Times, although this has been disputed by critics.

Mr Okarma claims that rapid progress has been made since human embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998. Even more ground could have been covered except for the intransigence of the Bush Administration. However, he and his supporters are wary of raising public expectations too high. Hans Kierstead, head of the embryonic stem cell team at University of California Irvine, says: “I find it unfair that people demand so much from such a young field. Just look at the strides we have already made.”

And Bob Klein, the chairman of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which has been authorised to a spend at least $3 billion over 10 years on stem cell research, told the BIO biotechnology conference in Boston recently that good spin doctors would be needed to put across the right message in the event of setbacks.

The ideological right is not asleep,” said Mr Klein. “They will be prepared to spin [any problems] to promote their opposition to embryonic stem cell research, and we’ll need a sophisticated fast- response messaging team to put across our message.” ~ Financial Times, May 9


Pressure is growing on the British government to permit the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos for stem cell research. After a recent public consultation, it appears that the government is preparing to ban it, but there have been noisy protests from scientists and MPs. The Association of Medical Charities has sent a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair signed by 223 medical foundations and patient groups.

Whatever the public might feel, suggests the letter, the views of scientists should prevail: “They highlight the need for this work because of the shortage of human eggs for medical research and because they see it as a vital avenue of inquiry which could greatly increase our understanding of serious medical conditions and ultimately lead to new treatments.”  

Within Parliament, members of a science and technology select committee are giving hybrid embryos vigorous support. “Ministers have never provided a rational basis for their ban and their only supporters are pro-life groups and anti-science campaigners who oppose all embryo research,” says MP Evan Harris.

However, Josephine Quintavalle, director of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: “Despite the enthusiasm of this small committee, worldwide there is more opposition than support for the creation of such entities, and within the United Kingdom as well. The public should now demand an extensive and objective consultation at the highest democratic level, and by this we mean Parliament itself.” ~ BBC, Apr 5; AMC website   



The leading scientist in the Bush administration has broken with his boss over embryonic stem cell research. “From my standpoint, it is clear today that American science will be better served, and the nation will be better served, if we let our scientists have access to more stem cell lines,” Dr Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, told a Senate committee.
We cannot, I would think, be second-best in this area,” Zerhouni said. “I think it is important for us not to fight with one hand tied behind our back here, and NIH is key to that.” Studies claiming that adult stem cells have as much potential as embryonic stem cells “do not hold scientific water,” Zerhouni claimed. “I think they are overstated. We do not know at this point where the breakthrough will come from… All angles in stem cell research should be pursued.” The co-editor of one of the world’s leading bioethics journals, Bioethics, has stated that he supports reproductive cloning. Writing in his blog, Udo Schuklenk, of Glasgow Caledonian University, says that “there are no serious reasons against reproductive cloning”.”It would simply give a few hundred or a few thousand people worldwide another means of non-sexual reproduction (eg, infertile couples for whom IVF failed could access cloning to have a genetically linked child). In fact, there could be a good medical reason for this. What if a loving couple with a desire to have their own genetically linked child runs a serious risk of passing a genetic illness on to their offspring? Reproductive cloning would… eliminate that risk by using only the healthy parent’s genetic material. Good news all round, I would think.”However, Dr Schuklenk is careful to point out that reproductive cloning is hardly a top research priority at the moment, with diseases like TB, malaria and AIDS still afflicting millions. He even finds it a “pre-occupation with having our ‘own’ genetically linked kids” “obscene”. However, he cannot see anything wrong with it if it ever becomes a possibility.
Studies claiming that adult stem cells have as much potential as embryonic stem cells “do not hold scientific water,” Zerhouni claimed. “I think they are overstated. We do not know at this point where the breakthrough will come from… All angles in stem cell research should be pursued.” ~ Los Angeles Times, Mar 20