The Scientific Activist

This Is Exactly What I’m Talking About

OK, I’ll admit that this is more than a little scary.

In a recent entry, I expressed skepticism toward a recent finding in Nature that had been hailed as a way to extract “ethically sound” lines of human embryonic stem cells. The technique involves removing a single cell from an eight-cell blastula and using this cell to derive a line of stem cells while allowing the remaining cells to grow and develop normally, without any apparent damage to the embryo. This was an interesting advance, but it didn’t seem to address some of the fundamental points plaguing the debate on human embryonic stem cells.

Apparently, though, (and this is the scary part) The Southern Baptist Convention agrees with me:

It is believed that sometimes a single cell does separate at this early stage naturally and creates a twin. Because these are totipotential cells, twinning will occur when a single cell is removed surgically as well. The single totipotential cell will begin to form an embryo but that process will be disrupted by the researcher, essentially destroying the twin.

Dr. Lanza suggests that his proposed procedure can be conducted on cells that have been removed previously from an 8-cell embryo. Cells are removed at this stage in IVF clinics to conduct preimplantation diagnoses for certain genetic defects or diseases. He argues that these cells were already extracted and therefore were going to be discarded anyway. However, the cells are destroyed when their genetic material is extracted to test for genetic defects. The only way a stem cell line could be derived from these cells is for them to be coaxed to divide, yielding a cell for genetic testing and a cell for embryonic stem cell research. Since these new cells are totipotential, they create the same dilemma as before–they will begin to form an embryo. When one dismantles these cells or interrupts their development, they are killing a newly-forming embryo.

That sounds eerily familiar. Here’s what I originally wrote:

When it comes down to it, this technique appears unsatisfactory for ending the current debate either way you look at it. If the technique is validated, and it can in fact produce 100% totipotent embryonic stem cell lines without harming the original embryo, this would mean that the cell used to generate the stem cell line would itself be capable of developing into a human embryo under the right conditions. Since the opposition to embryonic stem cell research generally takes the very narrow view that a fertilized egg is the moral equivalent of a fully grown and developed human being, this probably won’t due much to appease these opponents. Remember, these people prefer to let the extra embryos generated by in vitro fertilization procedures go to waste, instead of using them to generate much needed human embryonic stem cell lines.

Of course, the agreement ends there, as the Baptist article goes on to compare embryonic stem cell researchers to Nazis…. Yikes.

This just goes to illustrate that these and similar efforts to find alternatives to traditional embryonic stem cell research are fundamentally flawed, as the opposition is so set in its ways that it will not be so easily placated. Instead of focusing on such dubious efforts, we should instead work even harder than before to make the case for stem cell research, undiluted, without giving in to the religious zealots who try to stall such progress.


  1. #1 quitter
    September 7, 2006

    So now the opponents of ES research are going to oppose making totipotent cells period?

    Holy crap am I in the wrong field.

    Anyway, I feel like these authors are being unfairly impugned by the Baptists Catholics, and now Specter and Durbin in the senate because their results were over-interpreted by the lay media.

    I read the paper when it came out and it was obvious to me that the embryos didn’t survive. It was beyond the scope of their paper anyway, could you imagine doing this study for the first time and having to prove each embyro (a limited commodity) when it had a single cell removed could make hES cells and then go on to be viable after implantation? It probably would have been unethical without first doing a study just like this one that is a proof of principle study.

    So, the authors did show two valuable things, even if they did destroy the embryos to do it. First, you could make hES cells from this earlier stage of embryo, and second you could do it with fewer cells. The fact that they maximized their chances of accomplishing this by taking the who embryo is besides the point. This was proof-of-principle, not the complete and total solution.

    It’s all silly anyway, we should stop wasting our time appeasing the vocal religious minority that opposes this and get some science done.

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    September 7, 2006

    Yep, there’s no pleasing some people, huh?

    Anyways, you make a good point. I still think it was a compelling study, and hopefully the authors won’t catch too much flak due to the media sensationalizing and hyping up the results.

  3. #3 Stephen
    October 6, 2006

    Every sperm is precious.

    - Monty Python, The Meaning of Life.