Technical Solutions

Alternative Sources of Pluripotent Stem Cells

In Chapters 2 and 3, I focused on the first type of response that has been made to the Problem: the development of a middle-ground position intermediate between the dominant opposing views on the permissibility of embryonic stem cell research. The two middle-ground positions I discussed were the discarded-created distinction, which holds that it is permissible to use and derive stem cells from discarded embryos but not from research embryos, and the use-derivation distinction, which holds that it may be permissible to use but never to derive embryonic stem cells. I have shown that the arguments adduced in defence of these middle-ground positions are unconvincing or are inconsistently applied. Contrary to what their advocates sometimes claim, both middle-ground positions fail to offer a satisfying solution to the Problem.

However, there may be other solutions or ways to circumvent the Problem. Some have suggested that if embryonic stem cells, or their functional equivalents, could be created without destroying embryos, a good deal of the ethical controversy surrounding embryonic stem cell research would subside and the Problem would dissolve. This resulted in a growing trend to seek technical solutions to the problem of destroying embryos to obtain stem cells. In May 2005, the US President’s Council on Bioethics published a white paper, Alternative Sources of Pluripotent Stem Cells, discussing four proposals to produce pluripotent stem cells without creating, harming, or destroying embryos.1 One month after the publication of this white paper, Senator Roscoe Bartlett introduced Bill [1]

HR3144, also known as the ‘Respect for Life Pluripotent Stem Cell Act’, proposing US$15 million a year for the development of ‘embryonic stem cell alternatives that do not harm embryos’. The bill never became law but in September 2007 President Bush issued an executive order requiring that:

The Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary) shall conduct and support research on the isolation, derivation, production, and testing of stem cells that are capable of producing all or almost all of the cell types of the developing body and may result in improved understanding of or treatments for diseases and other adverse health conditions, but are derived without creating a human embryo for research purposes or destroying, discarding, or subjecting to harm a human embryo or foetus.[2]

Shortly after the executive order was issued, the NIH announced that it would begin implementing it, exploring ‘research on alternative sources of pluripotent stem cells, including specifically those techniques outlined in a 2005 white paper by the President’s Council on Bioethics’.[3]

The case for supporting these proposals is obvious: their implementation holds the promise of advancing research with embryonic or other pluripotent stem cells, without becoming entangled in concerns regarding the moral status of the embryo. No extra embryos would be created, nor would any living embryo be subjected to dangerous manipulation or be destroyed. Would this not be the perfect solution to the Problem?

In this chapter, I examine the proposals for alternative sources of pluripotent stem cells discussed by the President’s Council on Bioethics, as well as some proposals that have been advanced and pursued subsequently. I divide the proposed solutions in three groups: (1) techniques that use embryos, but avoid harming them, (2) techniques that use embryo-like entities that, arguably, are not embryos, and (3) techniques that involve the direct reprogramming of somatic cells.

  • [1] President’s Council on Bioethics, Alternative Sources of Pluripotent Stem Cells (Washington, DC: President’s Council on Bioethics, 2005).
  • [2] US Government, Executive Order 13435:Expanding Approved Stem Cell Lines inEthically Responsible Ways (Federal Register, 22 June 2007), 34951-3, .
  • [3] Department of Health and Human Services and National Institutes of Health, Plan forImplementation of Executive Order 13435: Expanding Approved Stem Cell Lines in EthicallyResponsible Ways (18 Sept. 2007), .
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