A Big Week for Little Cells

Stem cells have been in the news rather a lot lately.  President Obama has, it’s currently being widely reported, lifted Dubya’s restrictions on human embryonic stem-cell research, much to the chagrin of some, and the delight of others.  (Interestingly enough, among the worriers we find a surprisingly large number of British commentators who point out that scientists might be tempted to head back to the US to do their research after having come here in the past few years.)

The other hESC story of late has been the “breakthrough” that allows the “ethical” production of stem cells – that is, stem cells without the “embryonic” bit.

I ought no longer to be dissapointed by the flippant use of the word “ethical” in this sort of story – as if hESC researchers have been utterly devoid of any moral support for what they’ve been doing (because clearly finding cures for diseases has nothing in its defence…) – but, well, ho-hum.  Let’s allow for the sake of the argument that the word “unethical” means something substantial, and that hESC research is in some sense unethical.

Would that mean that new methods that allow us to reprogramme cells and thereby avoid hESC research is in some sense (again, allowing that the predicate is meaningful) “ethical”?  Not necessarily.  I’m reminded here of a paper given at the IAB conference in September by Katrien Devolder, which is currently in reviewerland, in which the point was made that foresaking hESCs now still implies complicity in past hESC research, since the technology relies on hESC research.  (I’ll leave aside debates about the scientific advantages of one technique compared to the other.)  So if you’re worried about dirty hands, you ought to be worried about the new technologies.  That is to say: if hESC research is morally tainted, then so is research into induced pluripoent stem-cells or other such technologies, since iPSCs are only possible thanks to hESC research.

For those who want the benefits of stem-cell research, but who would prefer minimal loss of embryonic life – and that group ought really to cover everyone who doesn’t have a pathological hatred of embryos, I suppose – then the way forward seems to be at most to accept iPSCs with a rueful smile.  But if we’re prepared to do that, then why not cut to the chase and embrace hESC research?

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