SPECIAL TO THE GAZETTE 12/4/01
The head of the Worcester biotech company that claims to have cloned the first human embryo “searched his soul” before embarking on the research, he said during a lively discussion on the ethics of cloning and stem cell research Monday (Dec. 3) at Harvard Medical School (HMS).
Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) President and Chief Executive Officer Michael West said that the deciding factor for him was that the cells don’t begin to individuate – or become individual human beings in the case of twins – until two weeks into their development, well after ACT harvests the cells at six days. If at six days, the individuals that arise from the embryos aren’t created yet, he reasoned, then the embryonic cells are just that – a lump of cells.
“How can we as a society say it has the rights of a person when it’s not an individual? And how should that override the needs of people who we know and care for [who can benefit from therapy derived from embryonic cells]?” West said.
West was a participant in a Harvard Medical School Medical Ethics Forum, held in the Tosteson Medical Education Center that drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200. Other members of the panel included Joseph Antin, associate professor of medicine at the Medical School and chief of the Adult Oncology Stem Cell Transplant Program at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; Walter Robinson, assistant professor of pediatrics and social medicine and associate director of the Division of Medical Ethics at the HMS; and Robert Kuttner, founder and co-editor of The American Prospect. Gwen Acton, assistant director of the Functional Genomics Program at the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center, moderated the panel for Genome Research.
The forum was just the latest chapter in a revived national debate on the ethics of human cloning and stem cell research sparked by ACT’s Nov. 25 announcement that it had successfully cloned human embryos to be used in stem cell research.
The company said it generated six-cell embryos by transplanting DNA from adult body cells into an egg that had its original DNA removed. Though the embryos died before reaching the eight-cell level, the ultimate goal would be to harvest the resulting embryonic stem cells, which could then be induced to develop into a variety of different organ and tissue cells to be used to fight disease.
The company hopes its research leads to the ability to grow compatible heart, blood, insulin-producing islet and other cells for people afflicted by a variety of diseases. Using cloning technology, those cells would be genetically matched to their eventual host, enabling transplantation and other therapeutic uses without the fear of rejection that today accompanies transplantation therapies.
Monday’s forum ranged fairly broadly across the cloning landscape, touching on the mechanics of ACT’s research, political pressures from religious lobby groups, and public fears of cloned armies. The central debate, however, didn’t stray far from the central concern of this type of research: at what point does a lump of cells become entitled to be treated as a developing human being?
And that’s tricky ground.
No one Monday claimed to have definite answers. West’s assertion that ACT’s research is OK because it comes at such an early stage of development provided a guideline that was accepted by some on the panel and attacked by some in the audience.
The Rev. Joseph Bassett ’66 said the reason scientists so often struggle with ethical questions about their research is because they do the research first and address ethical issues later. It would be better, he said, if they first thought of the ethical dilemmas first and then decided whether to go down that path at all.
Bassett’s comments brought a strong reaction from Kuttner, who said the religious right is trying to hijack debate on the issue. He warned that scientists have to be careful that others will command the high ground of the debate over their research and impose their own morality on the issue. He chided West for using such an early point as a cutoff in rationalizing his research, saying the Supreme Court has ruled since the Rowe v. Wade abortion decision that an unborn fetus has no rights.
West blamed some of the debate on a misunderstanding by the public about the age of the embryos the company works on. The public imagines they’re working on a fetus, small but recognizable as a human with arms and legs, he said. Instead, he said, the company is working on a ball of undifferentiated cells that have yet to have any human characteristics.
Fears, fantasies, concerns
Though the public debate has centered on whether to do the research at all, panelists said the sticky points are really more subtle – such as whether research should be done in public or private laboratories and whether women should be paid to donate their egg cells.
The international nature of science and commerce is also inescapable, panelists said, commenting that what may be illegal in the United States, such as selling organs, is not in other countries. Kuttner also raised the alarm that if legislation on the table to ban or restrict cloning research is passed, the nation will see an exodus of scientists moving to other countries to continue their work.
Anton disputed that, however, saying that not all stem cell research is based on embryonic cells. Research is continuing into ways to change adult stem cells so they have the same abilities to develop into any tissue or organ that embryonic cells have. That research, Anton said, would provide many avenues of inquiry even if embryonic cell research were curtailed.
Several members of the audience praised the debate, with one suggesting that the current atmosphere, after the Sept. 11 hijackings and subsequent anthrax attacks, has made the public extra-sensitive to the potential of science gone awry. The panelists agreed that apocalyptic visions of armies of cloned soldiers are just fantasy, but also agreed that the fears have to be addressed.
Robinson cautioned, however, that researchers need to be aware of their own dreams inspired by the new medical technology, as well as of public fears.
“Why are people so upset at this and not at homelessness and that so many people don’t have access to health care?” Robinson said. “This kind of technology plays in the public imagination. [But] it also plays out in clinicians, in our fantasies of rescue and of finding the magic bullet that we’ve been searching for for two centuries.”