Ethical Questions Follow Stem Cell Advances

Scientists have solved one ethical dilemma by finding a way to make the equivalent of human embryonic stem cells without destroying human embryos. But a new ethical dilemma is looming. It may be possible to derive eggs and sperm from the stem cells. Will a child someday be born to a parent who started life as a stem cell line?

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

We're going to talk now about a scientific breakthrough that appeared to solve a major ethical dilemma. It turns out, it actually raises its own problems.

Last year, scientists showed it was possible to make cells that behave just like human embryonic stem cells without destroying a human embryo. The destruction of the embryo is what rankles opponents of stem cell research.

Now, a panel of scientists and ethicists is pointing out ethical challenges raised by these new cells.

NPR's Joe Palca is here to tell us more.

Joe, first of all, remind us why scientists are so interested in these stem cells.

JOE PALCA: Well, the ones they're particularly interested in are these embryonic stem cells. I mean, they're interested in all stem cells, but embryonic stem cells are the ones that are sort of the starting point. If the embryo is the starting point for making a whole human being, embryonic stem cells are the starting point for making any cell type in the body — skin, brain, muscle, you name it. And so by studying that, they're hoping to learn how cells form and develop.

NORRIS: So, Joe, how do you make stem cells that behave like embryonic stem cells without destroying an embryo?

PALCA: Well, what scientists have shown now is that it's possible to take a skin cell, which is finished turning into anything. It's done; it's going to be a skin cell for the rest of its life and it's going to die. But by adding certain genetic factors, they've actually been able to return that cell to the point where it's acting as if it were an embryonic stem cell. In a sense that you can make it become any cell type in the body and it could turn back into a skin cell - that seems a little pointless, but you could turn it back into a skin cell, a nerve cell, any kind of cell that you wanted.

That's the breakthrough that solves the problem of destroying an embryo because now you have something that's just like embryonic stem cells, but it didn't come from an embryo.

NORRIS: So, what's the dilemma?

PALCA: Well, here's where the dilemma comes. You've got these cells in a dish now that can do anything you want and they can make skin cells, but they can also make egg and sperm. And if you use these stem cells to make egg and sperm, you can mix the egg and sperm together and get an embryo. And now, you're back to the problem of, should you be using embryos that are created this way, either for research or reproduction or what.

NORRIS: Now, we mentioned this group of scientists and ethicists that have released a report. Tell us a little bit more about this panel and their concerns.

PALCA: Well, they're calling themselves the Hinxton Group. It's a group of ethicists, scientists, lawyers who think about the social and policy - and also the scientific questions that are raised by this. I mean, I have described it as a very simple process. It's not simple to do. It's been tried in animals -and using embryonic stem cells from mice, for example, and no one has actually succeeded in getting viable sperm. There's one report, but it's not clear that that's correct.

The point is, this is the potential here and that's what this group is trying to address now. And basically, what they've concluded is maybe before we start riding off to the sunset in trying to do these things, we should ask ourselves as a society whether or not this is what we want to do.

Now, there are some very clear positive things. For example, if someone's having trouble making eggs and you can take a skin cell from that person and turn the clock back on the skin cell, and then run the clock forward and turn a skin cell into an egg cell, or maybe somebody who's having fertility issues would be very happy with that.

So you can see obvious potential benefits. But the ethical question is, for some people - moral question maybe - is it appropriate to do this? This is not the way people were created to make egg and sperm.

NORRIS: So as the panel ponders these ethical questions, do they actually have recommendations for dealing with the issue?

PALCA: Well, the interesting thing that they haven't said is, don't do this. In Japan, for example, there is some discussion about panels that would actually say we don't want this to happen, and this research was originally - the human and animal research on making these special cells originally came from Japan, and they're actually kicking around the possibility of banning the attempt to make egg and sperm from these cells.

NORRIS: Banning it in Japan?

PALCA: Banning it in Japan.

In this country, in this report, they're not calling for a ban. What they're calling for is what we're doing right now, which is beginning a social dialogue where people start to think about these things and start to address them as - let's think about this before it's happened and say how are we comfortable with this, are we sure we want this to go forward?

NORRIS: Thank you, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Joe Palca.

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