What Is The Problem With Stem Cell Research? (Part III)

Stem cell research leads to very strong and different opinions globally, but why? What is it about this incredible tool that allows it to be condoned and appreciated in one country, and considered immoral in others? Well, as with many issues that span the world, the local ethics play a large role in how they are received.

The main ethical argument comes down to how embryonic stem cells are taken. Because they exist around 5 days after an egg has been fertilized, the procedure involves destruction of the early embryo. Understandably, this is an unpleasant thought. However, our UK laws only allow the use of eggs spare from those who have undergone IVF (in-vitro fertilization) treatment, or from donors, it is also possible to source embryonic stem cells from fluid in the placenta and umbilical cord. The eggs from donors are fertilized outside the body, and never put back in. The artificially fertilized embryo is then grown for a maximum of 14 days. When the cells are derived (5 days after fertilisation) they are kept in culture where they can keep replicating and survive for a long time. However, new embryonic stem cells are required usually because culture conditions can lead to the cells gaining adaptations, which basically means the cells we are working with are no longer true to all stem cells. In order for all results to be standardized against other countries and labs, it is important the cells we are working with are the same anywhere else in the world, otherwise new discoveries could just be false results due to lab techniques and conditions.

Regardless of faith, most individuals consider killing humans unacceptable, but the big issue is at what point would you consider the moral status of a human being should be given to the embryo? Some religious sects believe it is at the instant the sperm fertilizes the egg, whilst others believe it is later than this. Some laws use the term ‘moment of conception’ to define the rights of a foetus, however this is ambiguous because there is no real moment, it is a progressive event that is hard to pin point.

It is almost impossible to put a definitive answer on the moral status; before implantation of the developing embryo in to the uterus wall, 14 days after fertilisation, it is common and natural for fertilized eggs to be discarded by the body if the conditions are not perfect, and also some current contraceptive devices work by preventing implantation into the uterus wall. This means early embryos are discarded both naturally and unnaturally already, so is research on them arguably more acceptable than the common wastage?

In order to determine when embryos deserve human rights, many use ideas of individuality and viability to help. In normal circumstances, the early embryo implants into the uterus at day 14. Before this, the egg only has the potential to become a person; up until 14 days, the egg can split in two to form identical twins, or two eggs (fraternal twins) can fuse to develop one person. If one egg can contribute to two people, or half a person, then it follows that the embryo isn’t truly a human with all attributed rights. After 14 days is a different matter. 20 weeks is around the last point that it is legally possible to have an abortion. Before this date it is known that the foetal tissues, including nervous system, are not developed enough for there to be any ability to survive independently. Premature babies can survive if born after around 26 weeks, so by this point their tissues are developed and connected, can respond to pain, and are they are undoubtedly human. Somewhere between individuality and viability lies the truth about when a foetus deserves human rights. We should all make our own opinions, and it is definitely a grey area with no single view right or wrong, but because embryonic stem cells are taken at 5 days, rather than 14, it is becoming increasingly acceptable to generate them for research.

Hopefully you understand this is not a deliberate provocation on the scientists’ behalf, but a necessity to improve the lives of others, and quench a certain thirst for knowledge. As scientists, we are required to be unbiased, and therefore we must accept beliefs and customs of others, and be as open to their views as our own. In my opinion, this is actually one of the most impressive aspects of our society. Britain is arguably the most multicultural, scientifically advanced nation in the world. The laws and restrictions put upon us are designed to reach a logical middle ground, and there are a number of authorities that subject research plans to heavy scrutiny before they are allowed to proceed. This, from some perspectives, may be seen as a travesty against scientific progress, but from another angle it ensures all our research is important, significant and ultimately useful. Without such rules our citizens are put at risk from promises and treatments that are unsubstantially founded. What’s more, these are precious cells and as scientists we have a responsibility to respect such a powerful tool that holds great value in every sense of the word. I personally believe that the cause justifies the means, as the goal for the research is to reduce suffering, but what do you believe?

Another controversial issue concerns a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer. This is where the nucleus from a human cell replaces the nucleus of an egg, and the new environment changes the human nucleus to a fertilized egg-like state. This is called reproductive cloning, because if the egg were to survive it would result in an exact replica of you. This is an intriguing technique because they can use eggs from animals (e.g. cows), which are easier to get hold of, and then the nucleus that replaces the cow genetic information would be derived from the patient themselves. This leads to production of patient specific embryonic stem cells, and if we were to take the cell from a patient with a genetic disease then we can use the embryonic stem cells this technique generates to improve our understanding of how the disease is characterized, develops, and provide a model to work with for future treatments.

Born in 1996, Dolly the sheep was the first mammal to be cloned using cell nuclear transfer, showing the principle of how adult cells can be made to reverse back to a pluripotent state. However, it isn’t an easy process because often the embryos do not survive – of 239 eggs, Dolly was the only one to be successfully fertilized and live. But it still sparks debate as people worry about cloning humans. The Human Fertilization and Embryology Acts prohibit this, so there is nothing to actually worry about, but it is interesting that the principle of creating human life exists outside of sexual intercourse. Many people consider it ‘playing God’, which depending on your view, it is – but I guess the argument comes down to whether ‘playing God’ is a good or bad thing. Again, if it saves lives, and we have the power to do it (in itself an act of God?), does the cause justify the means? There were reports in 2004 that a well-known lab in Korea had cloned humans, but in hindsight this result turned out to be false and unethical on a number of grounds. Reproductive cloning is a sensitive subject as it opens a can of worms in relation to, hypothetically, whether clones have the same rights, would they be treated as equals, so on and so forth. Even the idea of engineering babies through IVF, to prevent risk of genetic disease, is a minefield of ethical, moral and financial explosives e.g. what if people create their ‘perfect’ children? How will genetically engineered children be treated? Will natural humans be treated worse? Will ‘Brave New World’ become the reality?

We know from examples throughout history, that it is controversial issues that help scientific advances break through. Controversy just implies that society is not decided on a matter, not that the matter is inherently wrong (or right). It proves how our opinions as a race have changed over time, and the mere fact that we can discuss these issues is an achievement in itself. Protesting an opinion improves research, and prevents science becoming stagnant. Science is supposed to be about searching for the unknown and explaining it, but ventures into the unknown can unearth results and predicaments that no one has the foresight to see, whether good or bad. Scientists are the modern day versions of Christopher Columbus; to discover the new world you have to sail off the edge of the map.


Dolly’s Cell Nuclear Transfer – I.S.

Nucleus from egg is removed

and replaced with a nucleus of a normal adult cell from Dolly,

the egg can then develop inside uterus as normal, to generate a clone of Dolly

Spiritual Machines

I’m lucky enough that I discovered my passion for understanding the brain at an age when I could easily pursue it at university.  Some of the more baffling, interesting, and exciting ideas I’ve come across so far I hope to share here.  These come from a whole range of subject areas, including psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, cognitive science and computer science.  I’ll also be talking a bit here and there about the research I’m working on for my PhD.  But to begin this blog, I thought it might be fitting to talk a little about how I became interested in the subject.  

The very first time I considered the brain and its function in any real way, I was about seventeen and listening to a concept album by a little known (and underrated) Canadian alt rock get-up called Our Lady Peace.  The album was called Spiritual Machines, and between tracks were brief recordings of some guy talking about the progression of artificial intelligence.  These tiny speeches covered things like the first time a computer beat the world champion at chess (Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997), and the potential for heavy ethical dilemmas in the future if computers ever become autonomous enough to be truly considered conscious or independent.  The album concluded with a hidden track; a short dialogue between what appears to be a character from a future age, ‘Molly’, and an inquisitive present day person, quizzing Molly on whether she is a machine.  Molly replies that it ‘is really not for me to say.  It’s like asking me if I’m brilliant, or inspiring.’

After minimal research, I discovered that the album was named in honour of a book entitled ‘The age of spiritual machines’ by the brilliant Ray Kurzweil.  Turns out the snippets of speech on the album were actually excerpts from the book, read by Kurzweil himself.  The book describes a future in which the majority of society is artificially enhanced to various degrees, and the line between machine and human has become truly ambiguous.  Non-augmented humans or ‘MOSHs’ (Mostly Original Substrate Humans) are rare and comparatively primitive; incapable of understanding many things that are apparently commonplace, like music.

The idea that one day humans and machines could be two ends of a spectrum really got me interested in artificial intelligence and all its associated philosophical issues.  In turn, for the first time I began to think of the brain itself as a machine.  While this might seem like an unpleasantly cold and reductionist view, I believe that it has opened my eyes to some quite amazing possibilities.  For me, the most exciting part of this intellectual journey was the realisation that this machine - the brain – is just so spectacular.

Fine, so we can’t perform arithmetic like a calculator, or store information as accurately as a database, but the computations performed by the brain are infinitely more sophisticated.  We are flexible in our behaviour. We incorporate emotions and reason in our decisions – we don’t do things based on some explicit rule based system, but just know when something ‘feels’ right or wrong.  We have the ability to empathise, to understand the concept of existence.  Our brains tell our muscles when to adjust our posture to avoid falling over, keep us breathing and tell our hearts to beat, all completely outside of our awareness.  They transform photons and sound waves into the subjective experiences of seeing and hearing.  We can imagine things we know to be impossible, and visualise things we’ve never seen.  We are constantly learning new things and adapting our behaviour, sometimes realising it and sometimes not.  We prepare ourselves for the immediate and distant future and constantly make predictions about what’s going to happen next.  When our predictions are wrong, we refine them so they are better next time.  The particularly ineffable mystery, consciousness, is mediated by this machine, this slimy, grey mass of goop.  And all of this goes on for our entire lives.  It’s a pretty heart-stoppingly amazing machine that can do that.