Stem Cell Advance Heightens Ethical Tussle Ahead of House Debate

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:05 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - As U.S. lawmakers prepare to debate a bill that would expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, South Korean scientists have announced what supporters will see as the biggest breakthrough yet in the controversial work.

For the first time, the researchers say they have produced embryonic stem cells that genetically mirror specific patients whose cells were used to clone early-stage human embryos.

Proponents have called the technology "therapeutic cloning" on the grounds that the cells may one day be used to treat disease.

Increasingly, however, scientists are advising against the use of wording suggesting that treatments are looming, when they are years or even decades away. They favor the scientific term "somatic cell nuclear transfer."

Pro-lifers who believe human life starts at the point of conception prefer to call the process "destructive cloning," pointing to the resulting death of the embryo.

In an achievement reported in Friday's edition of the journal Science, a team of scientists from Seoul National University extracted DNA from skin cells of nine people diagnosed with spinal injures, juvenile diabetes and a rare immune disorder. These are the types of problems researchers hope will one day be treated with stem cells.

The genetic material was then inserted into donated eggs - whose original DNA had been removed - and fertilized in a laboratory. Once the eggs developed to a stage where stem cells were present, the cells were harvested.

The scientists, who last year were the first in the world to report the successful cloning of a human embryo, said their latest work had proven far more efficient: They were able to derive one stem cell line from 17 attempts, compared to an earlier success rate of one in more than 200 attempts.

This was attributed in part to the fact that the eggs used in the latest research had been donated - with consent - by young, fertile women, rather than ones left over from in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment.

Science magazine quoted a leading stem cell researcher, Rudolf Jaenisch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as saying of the Korean research results: "Some people will hate it, others will love it."

"But it puts the discussion on a very firm footing now. People will have to rethink the argument that it's not efficient."

The news drew a strong response Friday from Australia bioethicist Dr. John Fleming, who said researchers continued to define ethical arguments in scientific terms, justifying the cloning and subsequent destruction of embryos in terms of "efficiency."

He also questioned the efficiency claim, arguing that the stem cells had come from "unhealthy cloned embryos which will almost certainly be a basket case of genetic errors."

"And where the violation of fundamental human rights is concerned, 'efficiency' as an ethical justification doesn't cut it, any more than when it was used to justify Nazi experiments on human beings," added Fleming, adjunct professor of bioethics at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute and president of Campion College, a Catholic institution in Sydney.

Australian Bioethics Information director Amin Abboud called the Korean research "a step backwards ethically."

He pointed out that when the U.N. recently called for a ban on all human cloning, the many reasons given included concern about the potential for the exploitation of women.

"The latest results from the Korean team indicate that they are harvesting oocytes [immature eggs] from young women for this experimental research," Abboud said. "In the long run, this will lead to exploitation of women."

'Destruction of human life'

The research announcement is likely to stir up the debate in the U.S. over the ethics of experimenting on human embryos, just days before the House of Representatives considers a contentious bill on the subject.

Four years ago, President Bush limited federal funding of the research to a small number of then-existing stem cell lines.

The decision triggered a strong campaign, spearheaded by patient and other groups under the umbrella of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR), urging Bush to expand the policy.

A bipartisan bill introduced by Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) seeks to expand the number of cell lines eligible for federally-funded research. House Republicans are reportedly split on the measure.

The House will also discuss another bill, authored by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey), calling for a federally-funding network of banks for umbilical cord blood.

"Adult" stem cells from cord blood have already been used in numerous therapies, and many pro-lifers argue that as an easily-available and non-controversial alternative to embryonic stem cells, adult cells are the way to go.

Proponents of embryonic research counter that the stem cells derived from embryos have greater potential than adult ones - an assertion that remains in dispute.

The U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference sent a letter to lawmakers this week saying the Castle-DeGette bill would "encourage large-scale destruction of innocent human life."

"Government has no business forcing taxpayers to become complicit in the direct destruction of human life at any stage," Cardinal William H. Keeler wrote in the letter.

"Nor is there any point in denying the scientific fact that human life is exactly what is at stake here."

Supporting the bill, CAMR president Daniel Perry in a statement Thursday urged lawmakers to approve it and "move stem cell research forward."

Perry called the Korean research announcement "news that will excite the scientific community and give hope to millions of patients waiting for help."

"This work is powerful evidence that stem cell research can unlock the keys to understanding and eventually treating conditions from spinal cord injuries to diabetes," he said.

See earlier story:
Koreans in Human Cloning Breakthrough (Feb. 12, 2004)

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow