Stem cell breakthrough — science the ethical way?

A microscopic view of undifferentiated human embryonic stem cells.We noted here just the other day the all-but-absent ethical angle in the Daily Telegraph story about the creator of Dolly the cloned sheep and a new technique for creating stem cells without embryos. Now, we have two reports from Maggie Fox, our Health and Science Editor in Washington, that address the scientific and ethical issues.

Our story length limits meant the two had to be broken up, but they should be read in tandem.

One deals with the science:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two separate teams of researchers announced on Tuesday they had transformed ordinary skin cells into batches of cells that look and act like embryonic stem cells — but without using cloning technology and without making embryos.

The other deals with the ethics :

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Scientists and ethicists alike welcomed the news on Tuesday that two groups had been able to reprogram ordinary skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells — the body’s ultimate master cell.

Now, that’s more like it.

Despite all the optimism, this doesn’t mean the ethical debate is over. As Maggie’s second story explains, scientists will still work on embryonic stem cells because they could prove more powerful in the end. My question in the last post was whether opponents of embryonic stem cell research would support public funding for the new technique. Now I’m wondering how the debate about funding will play out between these two techniques.

Will science solve an ethical problem it helped create?

Cloning specialist Prof. Ian Wilmut, 2005The Daily Telegraph had a fascinating scoop over the weekend — Professor Ian Wilmut, the creator of Dolly the cloned sheep, has abandoned the therapeutic cloning method for a new way to create stem cells without an embryo. In classic Fleet Street style, the London daily announced in the second paragraph that the decision “will send shockwaves through the scientific establishment.” It took another 16 paras to get to other constituencies for this story, who are mentioned in passing in the line that “there is an intense search for alternatives because of pressure from the pro-life lobby, the opposition of President George W Bush and ever present concerns about cloning babies.

That doesn’t take away from their scoop in any way — it is primarily a science story, written by their science editor Roger Highfield, and it’s a good one. But this second angle is of enormous importance to many readers out there who have moral scruples about embryonic stem cell research.

Dolly the cloned sheep, 2002I was intrigued by a line high up saying: “Most of his motivation is practical but he admits the Japanese approach is also “easier to accept socially.” If I read that correctly, it means that science — which helped create this moral dilemma by developing the embryonic stem cell technique — may solve it eventually with another breakthrough that looks equally (or more) interesting to the scientist. That could take care of this issue, but others are bound to pop up that cannot be solved with a technical fix. Wilmot discusses this on a linked page publishing an extract from a book that he and Highfield wrote called After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning. He believes an embryo cannot be considered a person until it is about 14 days old because it has no nervous system. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, counts personhood from the moment of conception, since it considers the potential in the embryo just as important as the cells that are already there. It’s hard to see how a technical breakthrough can bridge that gap.

Tone evolves in science and religion debates

Amid the hullabaloo in the “science vs. religion” debate, one conference produces more thought-provoking arguments than the usual fare. It’s called “Beyond Belief” and it’s been held these past two years at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. The first reports of this year’s session (Oct 31-Nov 2) are just coming out — the latest edition of New Scientist has a full-page story and an editorial (registration required) — and there was an interesting new tone to the debate.

Churchgoers at prayerScientists at workThe 2006 session was called Beyond Belief – Science, Religion, Reason and Survival and New Scientist’s report read: “It had all the fervour of a revivalist meeting. True, there were no hallelujahs, gospel songs or swooning, but there was plenty of preaching, mostly to the converted, and much spontaneous applause for exhortations to follow the path of righteousness. And right there at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts was God. Yet this was no religious gathering – quite the opposite. Some of the leading practitioners of modern science, many of them vocal atheists, were gathered last week …” For a fuller account, see George Johnson’s very readable report in the New York Times.

This time around, the meeting was entitled Beyond Belief – Enlightenment 2.0 . The New Scientist report observed: “Last year’s meeting resounded with rallying calls from atheists determined to replace faith wherever they found it with a scientific world view. This year things were more conciliatory, with speakers recognising that we need many tools to make sense of the world besides the strictly rational…”