New Insights May Ease Stem Cell Process

New research may solve an ethical dilemma facing scientists. Emrbyonic stem cells are prized in the scientific world because of their potential for treating diseases. But obtaining those stem cells means destroying embryos. The new research may provide a way around that moral conundrum.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

New research published today may solve an ethical dilemma facing scientists. Embryonic stem cells are prized in the scientific world because of their potential for treating diseases. But obtaining those stem cells means destroying embryos, something that troubles many people. The new research may provide a way around that moral conundrum. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca joins me now in the studio to discuss these developments.

Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA reporting:

Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Tell me about the new findings.

PALCA: Well, the new findings, which were done in mice and published in the journal Nature, are--use a technique which they're calling embryo biopsy. So they create a mouse embryo in the laboratory using sperm and egg, and then after the embryo divides till it's about eight stages--eight cells, they take out one cell. Now the remaining seven cells are completely capable of going on to form a mouse pup. The remaining cell can be used, in various techniques in the laboratory, to grow into embryonic stem cells. And so they're not actually destroying the embryo in order to get the one cell that they're going to use from embryonic stem cells.

ELLIOTT: Why do people think this might not be a moral problem?

PALCA: Well, as I said, you know, it appears you can use this single cell without destroying the embryo. And the other thing is that they are doing something very similar to this in humans now; it's called preimplantation genetic diagnosis. And people with genetic diseases in their family, some of them can have tests, so they go into an IVF clinic and they create an embryo, and then they test the embryo to see if it's a carrier of the disease. And they only implant the ones that aren't carriers of the disease. So they already do this kind of `take one cell out.'

That's the plus side; it's been done in humans. But the downside is that's for people who have a disease. If you're just a perfectly healthy couple and you go in to have in vitro fertilization 'cause, you know, you're having trouble conceiving a baby, and the scientist comes to you and says, `Can we take one cell from your developing embryo?' Well, who knows if it's going to be healthy or not? I mean, it appears to work, but most people, I think, would be a little uncomfortable about saying, `Well, is this going to hurt my embryo?' And the answer is, `Well, we don't think so.' `Well, do you know?' Well, unfortunately, you can't know without doing it a number of times, and so the data is a little unclear on that point. So that's why I don't think it completely solves the ethical dilemma.

ELLIOTT: Do you think it will affect the whole debate over stem cell research?

PALCA: Well, it could. People have been trying really hard to find a way around the `Let's not destroy embryos' problem, because everybody says that embryonic stem cells have potential. Most people who object to their use are objecting on the basis of this question of destroying embryos. And I think everybody's looking for a place in this debate where they can say, `Here's where my comfort zone is exceeded and where it's not.' And what this does is it maybe finds a way for some people to say, `Well, you know, I could live with this notion of probably not harming the embryo by taking one cell out.' So it could change the national debate. We'll see.

ELLIOTT: NPR science correspondent Joe Palca.

Thanks, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome.

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