Will the stem cell wars erupt again?

Scientists at the New York Stem Cell Foundation Laboratory have scripted another perplexing episode in the on-going mystery of producing human embryonic stem cells. In a highly publicised experiment, they transferred the nucleus of a cell into a human egg and nurtured into the blastocyst stage. Then they dissected it and extracted embryonic stem cells.

For the New York Times, this breathed new life into stem cell research. It is “a steppingstone towards success,” according to Harvard’s George Q. Daly. But the perplexing part is that the stem cells had no conceivable therapeutic value. Robert Lanza, of the cloning company Advanced Cell Technology, was enthusiastic, but acknowledged that “it's of no clinical relevance". Miodrag Stojkovic, a cloning expert at the University of Kragujevac in Serbia, told Nature: "These are abnormal cells and therefore are a very limited tool to understand early human development".

The problem with the cells was that the eggs were not enucleated first. This meant that the resulting embryo had a triploid set of chromosomes (69 chromosomes) rather than a normal diploid set (46 chromosomes). They could never be used in “therapeutic cloning”.

Behind the scenes a battle seems to be going on between the champions of induced pluripotent stem cells and embryonic stem cells. As an editorial in Nature points out, “Competition between the approaches is fierce, and the authors of the current study point out the many weaknesses of iPS cells to bolster their own work.”

The new technique gives new insights into the failure so far of therapeutic cloning. But the breath of life was less scientific than regulatory. New York allows scientists to remunerate women for their eggs. Because these researchers had access to 270 eggs, they were able to experiment much more freely.

The various articles in Nature also highlighted the importance of word games in discussing human embryo research. The editorial congratulated the researchers for referring only to “the reprogramming of cells to a pluripotent state” rather than “therapeutic cloning”, a term tainted by its association with fraudulent research by disgraced South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-Suk. Ethicist Jan Helge Solbakk, of the University of Oslo, congratulated them for referring to the women as “participants” in the production of new knowledge rather than mere “donors”. Not once was the incendiary phrase “human embryo” mentioned in connection with the New York research.

But is the triploid product of the research a “human embryo”? American bioethicist E. Christian Brugger, of the Culture of Life Foundation, says that it must be, because some babies are born alive with triploid conditions. From an ethical point of view, he poured scorn on the experiment: “Creating disabled human life and then destroying it in order to devise ways to assist human healing is a bad means to a good end.” And indeed, the Nature editorial warned that if the New York scientists’ work proves successful, the old ethical issues will certainly resurface. ~ Nature, Oct 6 

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