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.