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Ethicists Wary of New Stem Cell Proposals

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WASHINGTON — A member of the President’s Council on Bioethics and two Columbia University scientists are promoting new research methods that could, they say, resolve the contentious stem cell debate.

Aspects of the proposals have received support from critics of stem cell research, including a Catholic archbishop. But many religious opponents of stem cell research still remain skeptical, saying these new approaches could raise more questions than they answer.

On Dec. 3, William Hurlbut, the Bioethics Council member, along with Donald W. Landry and Howard A. Zucker, scientists from Columbia University, presented their proposals to the President’s Council on Bioethics.

The proposals, first presented last month, were put forth as an attempt to address ethical concerns expressed by opponents of stem cell research, who have successfully lobbied to deny federal funding of such research. But they hardly end the “moral warfare” in the stem cell debate,” said Ted Peters of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences based in Berkeley, Calif.

The reaction illustrates the ethical and religious storm swirling around stem cell research, which has the potential to cure many diseases from cancer to diabetes. Celebrities such as the late Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed by a spinal cord injury, have been advocates of stem cell research. Even if the researchers’ theories don’t quiet the storm, they amount to a significant effort by leading scientists to address the moral concerns surrounding embryonic stem cell research.

Landry and Zucker wrote their proposal in an article in the Nov. 9 issue of The Journal of Clinical Investigation. After The Boston Globe did an article about it in a Nov. 21 article, it has been a hot topic in the bioethics community.

The scientists make two main arguments. One involves a new cloning technique. The other provides a different perspective on the ethics of using “dead” embryos.

Hurlbut, a Stanford University bioethicist, wants to develop an entity that would produce cells that would act like embryonic stem cells, but which would not, he says, become a human embryo. Through a cloning technique called “altered nuclear transfer,” the genetic structure (the genome) of a human egg would be altered, so that it would not, Hurlbut says, become a fully developed human embryo.

This procedure would take out the gene that would allow a placenta to form. Without a placenta, this mass would not become an embryo, Hurlbut argues.

He is making his proposal to “bridge the discord in the debate on stem cell research,” said Hurlbut in a telephone interview with Religion News Service. In the past, he himself has opposed embryonic stem cell research.

Hurlbut’s theory is still in a theoretical stage. He believes that the technology exists to test it, but that many experiments should be conducted on animals before conducting any research on human embryos.

In The Journal of Clinical Investigation, Donald W. Landry and Howard A. Zucker, Department of Medicine and Department of Pediatrics, Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, make a different argument.

They say that “a reality of human embryonic life” is that many of the embryos die (become nonviable) within a few days of fertilization. Landry and Zucker argue that these embryos are “organismically dead” and should be viewed in the same way as people who are considered to be “brain dead.”

Just as some organs, such as hearts, can be healthy (and used in organ transplants) after a person is considered to be “brain dead,” cells can still function as stem cells in embryos that are dead, Landry and Zucker say. They say that extracting stem cells from embryos should be viewed in the same ethical framework as harvesting organs from people who are brain dead.

While applauding the researchers’ motivation, many religious bioethicists are reacting skeptically to their proposals.

There are two major problems with Hurlbut’s idea, says Laurie Zoloth, professor of medical ethics and religion at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University.

Coming from the Orthodox Jewish tradition, she supports embryonic stem cell research, but says Hurlbut’s proposal “involves manipulation of the human genome . . . not for the purposes of healing . . . but to solve a theological problem,” Zoloth says.

Second, doing the research that Hurlbut is proposing would require funding and she objects to “having public funding used to resolve theological problems.”

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