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Methods of obtaining embryonic stem cells
with, perhaps, fewer ethical objections

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The ethical dilemma:

There is a general consensus that all living matter containing human DNA is, by definition, human life. This may include human life in the form of a spermatozoon, ovum, pre-embryo, embryo, fetus, newborn, child, youth or adult. For that matter, human cancer cells, skin scrapings, saliva, etc. are either forms of human life or contain human life.

However, there is no consensus about when human life becomes a human person with fundamental human rights, including the right to life itself. This is the key factor dividing the U.S. and Canada in the debate over abortion access.

North Americans are seriously divided over the human life/human person question:

bullet Many religious and social conservatives support the pro-life movement. They believe that human personhood is attained at conception, or perhaps very shortly thereafter when cellular division occurs.
bullet Many religious liberals, social liberals, and secularists support the pro-choice movement. They believe that personhood happens much later, during the embryonic or fetal stage of pregnancy -- or even at birth when the fetus becomes independent of her or his mother.

The extraction of human stem cells currently requires the death of an pre-embryo. "In the standard method of harvesting stem cells, researchers wait five days or so after fertilization until the embryo has become a ball of up to 150 [undifferentiated] cells. They obtain stem cells from the interior of the ball, which destroys the embryo." 1

bullet To most pro-lifers, this procedure involves the murder of a living person. It is as evil an act as strangling a newborn. An abortion clinic is considered the ethical equivalent of the Auschwitz death camp.
bullet To most pro-choicers, a pre-embryo is a potential person but not an actual person. Killing it months before it attains personhood in order to harvest its stem cells is a ethically defensible act, when weighed against the potential treatments and cures that embryonic stem cells should be capable of providing in the future.

Some researchers have been trying to find alternatice methods of obtaining embryonic stem cells that do not involve the actual death of an embryo. They hope to find a method of obtaining stem cells that is acceptable to the pro-life movement. The stakes are very high. Embryonic stem cells have the potential to develop into almost any of the 220 types of cells found in the human body (e.g. blood cells, heart cells, brain cells, nerve cells, etc). Rick Weiss of the Washington Post writes that researchers expect that stem cells from human pre-embryos will be able to:

"morph into virtually every kind of tissue, including nerves to replace those destroyed by spinal injuries and cardiac muscle to fill in for cells lost in a heart attack. Scientists see stem cells as the key to a new era of regenerative medicine." 10

Some researchers regard them as offering the greatest potential for the alleviation of human suffering since the development of antibiotics. Over 100 million Americans and two billion other humans worldwide suffer from diseases that may eventually be treated more effectively with embryonic stem cells or even cured.

Adult stem cells can be obtained with few ethical concerns. However their potential applications are much more restricted than for embryonic stem cells.

Bernard Lo, a bioethics specialist at the University of California - San Francisco, has asked individuals and groups who are opposed to embryo stem cell research to make their views on alternative harvesting methods clear at the outset. He said:

"This work is really driven by a desire on the part of scientists to address the moral concerns some people have. So those people should say now if it doesn't settle the problem, to avoid a lot of wasted effort."

Those opposed to embryo stem cell research have apparently done just that. Within hours of articles being published in the journal Nature's online web site, many had already expressed their opposition. 2

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Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) study using PGD:

ACT is a company located in Worcester, MA which is conducting world-class research with stem cells. They have used an existing process called "Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis" (PGD). This is a procedure that is usually requested by prospective human parents who are aware that they are carriers of an incurable genetically-based disease or disorder, like cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, Huntington disease, muscular dystrophy, sickle cell disease, Tay Sachs disease, etc. The parents have been genetically screened. One or both are found to be carriers of a disease or disorder. They are concerned about passing the problem to their child. Fertility clinics use PGD to test embryos produced by the couple for the genetic problem. Embryos which are found to be free of the disease or disorder are implanted in the woman's womb; defective embryos are discarded. In this way, PGD can weed out genetically defective human embryos before they have a chance to develop beyond the pre-embryo stage.

The ACT scientists did not perform their research on human embryos. They studied two-day old mouse embryos which had gone through three cell divisions after fertilization. Each embryo then consisted of eight-cells. One of the eight cells,  called a "blastomere," was carefully removed from each embryo. The embryos' seven remaining cells continued to develop. Previous research has shown that one or even two cells can be removed from an eight-cell embryo without any adverse effect. The embryos were implanted in the wombs of mice, and continued to mature into normal baby mice.

The single cell that was removed from each mouse embryo was found to behave like embryonic stem cells. The researchers ended up with only a single stem cell from each embryo -- rather than about 150 stem cells as are harvested from an entire embryo. Still, methods exist to produce endless numbers of stem cells from a single cell. Lanza was able to find the optimum culture and environment to grow a colony of embryonic stem cells from the single cell. 10

The lead ACT researcher, Robert Lanza, said:

"The most basic objection to embryonic stem cell research is the fact that embryos are deprived of any further potential to develop into a complete human being. We have shown in a mouse model that you can generate embryonic stem cells using a method that does not interfere with the developmental potential of the embryo." 3

He said that the entity has "no inherent principle of unity, no coherent drive in the direction of the mature human form." 4 During a separate interview, he said:

"Many people, including the president, are concerned about destroying life while trying to save it. We're showing a method by which you can create stem cells without destroying the embryo." 5

Lanza suggested that when fertility clinics perform human PGD to detect genetic diseases, they could:

bullet Remove the single cell as usual.
bullet Allow it to divide into two cells.
bullet Use one of the cells to test for genetic problems.
bullet Use the other cell to establish a stem cell line. 1

The stem cells would then be a perfect genetic match for the person into which the embryo develops.

Lines of stem cells would then be a byproduct of existing PGD testing. No embryo would be killed in the process. The scientists hope, perhaps naively, that this technique might be acceptable to the pro-life community.

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Negative reactions to the PGD procedure:

To many pro-lifers, the idea of creating a number of persons in the form of embryos, testing them, rejecting any that do not meet certain criteria, and eventually allowing the latter to die is mass murder. It bears similarities to the process that the Nazis used as Auschwitz to separate desirable workers from the rest of the prisoners, and routing the latter to the gas ovens for extermination.

Some negative reactions:

bullet The Roman Catholic Church has not responded formally as of 2005-OCT-18 (three days after the paper was published in the Journal Nature.) 5 They are expected to condemn both techniques.

On the article's publication date, the Associated Press reported initial comments by Richard Doerflinger. He is the deputy director of pro-life activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He said that PGD is itself unethical for two reasons:

bullet It places the embryo at risk of damage which could kill it.
bullet He said that PGD is mainly a procedure "to select out genetically imperfect embryos." 1

Since the PGD procedure itself is prohibited by the Church, any byproduct -- such as stem cells -- would probably be equally condemned.

bullet The Rev. Tad Pacholczyk, director of education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, said that Catholic teaching disapproves of PGD because it is a violation of the embryo and is not aimed at helping the embryo. In addition, research on animals has shown that a single cell extracted from an embryo has the potential to initiate a pregnancy if it is implanted in a uterus. Thus, destroying the cell would be murdering a human person. 6
bullet Professor Richard Gardner, chairperson of the UK's Royal Society's working group on stem cells research and cloning, said:

"The idea that ethical fears will be allayed is a red herring. It is difficult to see any parent willing to risk having cells extracted from their own child while it is an embryo, unless it is to create stem cells in case that particular child needed them in the future." 3
bullet Josephine Quintavalle, of the UK-based Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said that:

 "...there is no evidence yet that taking stem cells will not cause harm later on."

She commented that the technique interferes:

"...with the natural process, and you have to ask why someone would want these stem cells. I think scientists would be far better to concentrate on other areas of stem cell research such as amniotic and adult stem cells which show far more promise." 3

It may be worth noting that adult stem cell research has been ongoing for over a decade and is now producing useful treatments. Embryonic stem cell research is quite new and has yet to progress to human trial stage. However, researchers generally agree that embryonic stem cells offer much greater long-term potential.

bullet Douglas Powers, chief scientific officer of Boston IVF, a fertility clinic, said that: ''When you start mixing the obtaining of research material with a clinical test, you get into a very tricky area." He gave one example: If
bullet A cell was removed for PGD evaluation, and
bullet The cell was allowed to divide into two cells, and
bullet One cell was used to extract its stem cells, and
bullet The other cell died before the PGD test was complete, and
bullet If there were not a sufficient number of other embryos to test, then:

The patient's care would be interrupted. She would have to delay attempts to become pregnant.

bullet Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council expressed concern about the PGD procedure. He wrote: "it is not clear what effect this would have on children who are born after having had one of their cells removed while still an early embryo." 9
bullet Dr. John Shea, who is medical advisor to Campaign Life Coalition, a Canadian pro-life group, said

"Sometimes it is possible to remove a cell from an embryo without killing it, but the point is that to take the risk without benefiting the embryonic being is unethical according to the standards established by the Nuremberg Code. They just refuse to admit that the embryo is a human being and so all the rules regarding medical research on human beings have to be applied. You have to get consent, and no parent can consent to allowing medical research on a child that is not intended to benefit the child." 11

bullet George Q Daley, a stem cell researcher at Harvard Medical School, notes that both procedures are in early stages. He said:

"It's not clear it's going to work in human embryos. And in order to determine that we'll have to actually do the research on human embryos and likely destroy some in the process." 4

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Whitehead Institute and MIT study:

Rudolf Jaenisch and Alexander Meissner at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, also studied mouse embryos. They used a modified therapeutic cloning technique. In therapeutic cloning, the aim is to produce stem cells which are a perfect genetic match to a patient suffering from Parkinson's disease, diabetes, paralysis, or some other disorder or disease. In this way, they have the potential to treat or cure the patient without inducing possible rejection.

The researchers removed the nucleus from a skin cell that has been removed from an adult mouse. 7 The nucleus is the component of the cell that contains mouse's DNA. This nucleus was then inserted into mouse ovum from which the nuclei had previously been removed. The ovum then started to behave like an embryo.

They refer to this technique as "altered nuclear transfer" It is slightly different from conventional therapeutic cloning. They added an extra step before inserting the nucleus into the ovum. They "blocked the action of a key gene [Cdx2] in the nuclei" so that the resulting "non-embryonic entity" would not have the capacity of developing into a conventional embryo that could be implanted in a uterus and induce a pregnancy. They turn off the gene that controls the development of the outer layer of cells that would eventually become the placenta. 6 Thus, it lacks the ability to "establish the fetal-maternal connection" in the uterus. In essence, they made the DNA incapable of development so it could not produce a baby mouse. Scientists argue that "patient-specific" embryonic stem cells can be produced without destroying any potential human life. Jaenisch said: "They can never, ever, become a baby." 4

Malcolm Ritter, science writer for the Associated Press, wrote: "This modified technique, called altered nuclear transfer, has been championed by Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford University, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics. He said the abstract cluster of cells the egg produces is not an embryo but a 'non-embryonic entity' that lacks an embryo's developmental potential." Dr. Hurlbut said: "You don't create a living being."  Again, the scientists hope, perhaps naively, that this technique might be acceptable to the pro-life community.

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Negative reactions to the Altered Nuclear Transfer procedure:

The key question with this procedure is whether an embryo-like entity which has zero potential to develop into a fetus and newborn, is still a human person.

bullet "... to some bioethicists, an early-stage embryo that stands no chance of forming anything more advanced lacks a human's ethical or moral standing." 8
bullet If pro-life movement considers it to be a human person, then they will feel that it has human rights including the right to live. They will be unalterably opposed to the technique.

Some negative reactions:

bullet Richard Doerflinger disagrees with the belief that the altered nuclear transfer procedure creates a non-embryonic entity, not an embryo. He said that the technique seems to first create and then destroy an embryo. That would make it unacceptable to the Catholic Church.  1
bullet The Associated Press reported that:

"....the Rev. Tad Pacholczyk called the approach a step in the right direction. Scientists are already discussing a modified version in which adding the nucleus to the egg would result in a single stem cell, not an embryo. He said.

Seen in that light, he said, the mouse study "is very encouraging. It reminds us that we have certain tools at our disposal in the scientific armamentarium that can be used in the direction of seeking an answer to the ethical impasse." 1 In a separate interview, he said:"I am very encouraged. We may be able to work around this with some creativity and good will." 6

bullet Jaydee Hanson, director of human genetics at the International Center for Technology Assessment, a group which opposes stem cell research, said: "This is an attempt to solve an ethical issue through a scientific redefinition that really doesn't solve the issue." 2
bullet Douglas Melton, a stem cell researcher from at Harvard University, expects that groups opposed to stem cell research will still consider the "entity" to be an embryo, even though it has no potential for development.
bullet Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council expressed concern about this procedure as well. He wrote: " is unclear whether such an entity should be considered not an embryo, or simply an embryo altered for self- destruction. More animal research is warranted to answer questions raised by these studies." 9
bullet Markus Grompe, a geneticist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, OR, said: "The concern is that an embryo is being generated that is doomed to die very soon." 10
bullet Robert P. George, a Princeton professor of jurisprudence and a member of President Bush's bioethics council said:

"Nobody should be speaking too quickly here on either side. The way to find out is to do the careful studies to figure out exactly what you've got here. It's not a spiritual question. We're not looking for a soul. The question is, 'Does it have the [biological basis] for self-construction and self-organization, or is it a fundamentally disordered growth'? "

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Political aspects:

At the time that the papers were published in the journal Nature, the U.S. Senate was considering a bill that was already passed by the House of Representatives. It would overturn some of President Bush's limitations on the funding of stem cell research programs. Some of the bill's supporters suggest that these alternative approaches might reduce support for the measure. Daley said:

'If you are supporting these alternatives at the expense of the proposal to expand access to the stem cells that are available today, you are essentially voting to delay the research." 6

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Site navigation:

 Home page > Morality > Stem Cells > here

or Home page > Hot topics > Stem Cells > here

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Malcolm Ritter, "Studies show new ways to get stem cells," Associated Press, 2005-OCT-16, at:
  2. Carl T. Hall & Cornelia Stolze, "Stem cell strides may help resolve ethical dilemmas. New methods preserve viable embryos, but some opponents skeptical of tactics," San Francisco Chronicle, 2005-OCT-17, at:
  3. "Hope over stem cell ethical fears," BBC News, 2005-OCT-17, at:
  4. Elizabeth Weise, "Studies show new ways to get stem cells," USA Today, 2005-OCT-16, at:
  5. Erika Check & Carina Dennis, " 'Ethical' routes to stem cells highlight political divide. Split opens over methods to create nonviable embryos." Nature, 2005-OCT-16, at:
  6. Gareth Cook, "New approach reported in stem cell creation," The Boston Globe, 2005-OCT-17, at:
  7. "Stem cell end run?" Washington Post editorial, 2005-OCT-24, at:
  8. Peter N. Spotts, "A more ethical way to harvest stem cells? Scientists are in hot pursuit. Researchers cite progress in efforts to address concerns about embryo destruction and human cloning," Christian Science Monitor, 2005-OCT-17, at:
  9. Tony Perkins, "Embryonic Stem Cell Studies Raise Questions, Not Cures," Washington Update, 2005-OCT-17.
  10. Rick Weiss, "Mice Stem Cells Made Without Harm to Embryos," Washington Post, 2005-OCT-17, at:
  11. Cited in the E-Alert for 2005-OCT-19 of the Massachusetts Family Institute.

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Copyright 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-OCT-17
Latest update: 2005-OCT-20
Author: B.A. Robinson

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