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Ethical Guidelines for Stem Cell Research Proposed


Many scientists believe embryonic stem cells have remarkable potential for treating human diseases. But using embryonic stem cells is fraught with ethical baggage. After all, to obtain these stem cells, you must destroy a human embryo. The President's Council on Bioethics has recently been looking at ways to avoid the ethical minefields and still allow research with these cells. This past week the council released a report on its conclusions. Joining me now to discuss the report is NPR science correspondent Joe Palca.

Welcome to the show, Joe.

JOE PALCA reporting:

Thank you, Jacki.

LYDEN: Let's start at the beginning and say what scientists are so interested in when it comes to embryonic stem cell research.

PALCA: Well, the reason they're interested in these cells is that they have these remarkable properties. I mean, they look just like little balls if you look at them in the microscope, and they're pretty uninteresting-looking. But give them the right signals and they turn into nerve cells or muscle cells; they turn into any cell in the body. And so the idea is, wow, you know, there's a bunch of diseases like diabetes and Parkinson's where specific types of cells are destroyed. Well, if we've got these embryonic stem cells, we could essentially have an unending supply of repair cells; we just give them the proper signal and--Bing-bing-bing--and they start making the cells you want. So that's the hope.

Of course, they haven't done that yet. I mean, they can get them to turn into things, but whether they'll actually turn to new therapies is unclear. But, of course, you must destroy an embryo because that's how you get these to start with. Once you've got them, you don't need to destroy any more embryos, but each time you get a new one of these embryonic stem-cell lines, you need to destroy an embryo.

LYDEN: Well, and this has been a controversy with this administration going back to the last tenure of the president in the White House. How is the president's council getting around the problem of the need to destroy the embryos in order to work with them now?

PALCA: Well, their idea is, `OK, what we want is cells that have these qualities, but maybe we can do it in a way where we don't actually have to destroy an embryo.' So one idea they came up with is, `Well, what if we look at embryos that are essentially dead; they stop dividing spontaneously? Could you perhaps then use those to derive stem cells?' Another idea is to take a single cell from a developing embryo and then let that develop and see if those couldn't be used to derive stem cells.

Then there's a completely new idea, which is to generate a kind of a cell that you would merge with a kind of an egg, and you'd get something that was kind of an embryo but it wasn't really an embryo, and it wouldn't have the potential to grow into anything, and maybe those would give rise to stem cells. And the final idea--they had four--was to actually take a cell from an adult animal--a skin cell from you, for example--and figure out how to turn it back into what it once was in its lineage, you know, way--so it's got all the DNA, but it's become specialized. Maybe there's a way to unspecialize it and get back to a point when it can turn into these cells again.

LYDEN: Well, personally, Joe, I'm happy to give one of my own cells if it'll help scientific research. But what about everybody else? The suggestions--do any of them resolve all of this?

PALCA: Well, yes and no. I mean, I think if you're dealing with tissue that's dead, people already are comfortable with using that. So the argument is, you know, it's like taking cells from a cadaver, and people don't have a problem with that. But all these things, there's some objection to it because people will say, `Well, you know, we don't really want to give people the impression that there's some good to come out of creating an embryo. Even, you know, if it dies, you know, it deserves special respect, and we shouldn't just be using its bits, as it were.'

Actually, your example of giving your cell is the one that this commission was most comfortable with ethically because, you know, then it's just an adult cell, doesn't cost you anything, and if it does what scientists want, that would be great. The trouble is that's a long ways off. Maybe someday. So this gets past some of the ethical hurdles but not all them, and the ones that are the most ethically promising are perhaps the most scientifically challenging.

LYDEN: Well, despite these reservations, Joe, research on stem cells is definitely moving forward. California voters approved spending $3 billion over the next decade on stem-cell research. New Jersey is also looking at ways to fund this research. Is any of this goading the president's council to move forward?

PALCA: Well, I'm sure they're aware of this. They've been working on it for quite some time. I think that they're trying to address the question of the country--they feel that the country--even if some states and some parts of the country are comfortable with this, they say a lot of people in the United States of America are not comfortable with it. And they would like to come up with a way of finding an ethical way out, essentially, that would give the scientists what they need to develop the kinds of therapies that might come from embryonic stem cells or their equivalent without the moral baggage.

LYDEN: Well, thanks very much for being with us today.

PALCA: Lovely to be here.

LYDEN: NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.