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Reprogrammed Skin Cells and Other Monkey Business

It was a busy week for stem cell research. First scientists in Oregon announced that they have created a cloned monkey embryo and extracted stem cells from it. Then, scientists in Japan and the United States reported generating pluripotent stem cells – cells very similar to those found in human embryos – from skin. What do these developments mean?

Human stem cells from skin:

  1. The distinction between regular body cells and human embryos is blurring. Cells that look and behave a lot like those found in embryos can now be extracted from genetically modified skin cells.
  2. Pluripotent stem cells made from an individual’s skin might one day be used in therapies that are tailored to that individual.
  3. Adult stem cell research suddenly looks as promising as embryonic stem cell research, a fact that opponents of the latter will use to argue against destroying early human life for the sake of science. Proponents will argue that, for now at least, both kinds of research should proceed.
  4. Other nations are active in stem cell research and are, in effect, giving the U.S. a run for its money.

Monkey cloning:

  1. Cloning monkey embryos increases the likelihood that scientists will be able to clone human embryos. They could then extract stem cells for use in research and possibly therapy.
  2. We still don’t know whether, if it were placed in a woman’s uterus, a cloned human embryo could develop into a fetus and lead to a healthy birth. Human reproductive cloning is certainly a step closer, but we’re not quite there yet.
  3. Unless scientists can get a lot better at it, cloning human embryos will take many eggs: the monkey researchers used 304 eggs from 14 female macaque monkeys to generate two stem cell lines, of which one was defective.
  4. Egg donation involves daily injections with strong hormones and takes several weeks to complete. U.S. practice at this time is not to compensate women who provide eggs for cloning research and, thus far, women have been reluctant to donate. For human cloning to proceed, a significant number of women will need to be persuaded to give up their eggs.

In light of persistent disagreement in American society about the moral status of the early human embryo, the first development promises the most bang for the buck. If we can reliably extract pluripotent stem cells from skin cells, then we can avoid significant ethical and logistical problems. We won’t need to ask women and men to donate their unused IVF embryos to stem cell research and we won’t need to ask women to go through the arduous and time-consuming process of donating eggs to cloning research. We’re not there yet – scientists will want to continue with embryonic stem cell research until it is clear that adult cells suffice – and fertility researchers will continue to use embryos in their research. But unless modified skin cells come to be considered a kind of embryo, which seems unlikely, the moral uproar over stem cell research will die down if embryos are no longer involved.

This is not to say that ethical (and legal) issues will vanish altogether. If adults are providing cells for research they might legitimately expect to receive something back. When John Moore argued before the Californian Supreme Court in 1990 that he should receive some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars his UCLA doctors had made by patenting and commercializing his T-lymphocytes, he was told he had no legal property interest in his own cells. Seventeen years later, the law may well be the same but a savvy cell donor could seek an upfront agreement to share in any eventual profits. If physicians, scientists, and their university employers can benefit financially by commercializing someone’s skin cells, why shouldn’t the donor share in the good fortune? (See Lori Andews’ article, “My Body, My Property,” Hastings Center Report 16, no 5 (1986), and a special report Angela Wasunna and I published in HCR this year, Patents, Biomedical Research, and Treatments: Examining Concerns, Canvassing Solutions.)

Published on: November 21, 2007
Published in: Bioethics, Emerging Biotechnology

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