Oct. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Last week, with the announcement that scientists had created stem cells, not from embryos, but from adult cells, one controversy in biomedicine was replaced by another. No sooner had the problem of using human embryos been solved than a problem with selling human eggs sprang up. Let’s take these one at a time.
Stem cells are promising because, like those “letters of transit” in “Casablanca,” they are fill-in-the-blank cells that can be turned into any of the more complex cells in the human body. Therefore, they are a potential replacement for diseased or missing cells and a potential cure for a long list of illnesses.
Embryonic stem cells have been controversial because they are derived from human embryos. The controversy is based on a common misunderstanding: An embryo is not the same thing as a fetus. It is a clump of cells with no ability to feel pain and no self-awareness of any sort. Nature itself creates and destroys millions of them every year in the natural process of human reproduction.
The embryos used in stem cell research come from fertility clinics, where creating more embryos than are needed and discarding (or pointlessly freezing) the rest are standard procedures. Such practices at fertility clinics are almost completely uncontroversial.
Stem cells can also be derived from adult human beings, but these are more complex and specialized cells that must be reverse-engineered into their “pluripotent” (could-become- anything) state. Nevertheless, adult stem cells have two great advantages: They are uncontroversial, and once the reverse- engineering trick is perfected, they could be derived from a patient’s own cells, reducing the risk of rejection.
But research on adult stem cells still requires the harvesting of a human egg in which to implant the cell. Furthermore, adult stem cell research has run into various roadblocks and dead ends. This is why those who hailed adult stem cells and claimed that they obviated any need for embryonic stem cell research were so wrong. When something as potentially miraculous as stem cells comes along, you need to pursue all avenues of research, because you never know which one will pay off.
Last week the New York Stem Cell Foundation announced that two of its scientists had discovered a possible solution to a crucial problem with adult human stem cells. This has created yet another ethical controversy, having to do with the needed eggs. As reported by Nicholas Wade in the New York Times, donors are being paid $8,000 each via Columbia University, a co-sponsor of the research.
Yet paying egg donors violates the guidelines of the National Academy of Sciences. “Many ethicists fear that paying donors will lead to a market in organs,” the Times article says.
So what? We appreciate the medical and economic dangers involved in allowing a donor to be paid for giving up a kidney. But eggs for stem cell research are not vital organs. They can be removed at minimal risk to the donor. And others will develop in their place.
Many donors will be motivated by a combination of mercenary and charitable impulses -- which society ought to encourage. You shouldn’t have to be an absolute saint in order to do a bit of good.
--Editors: Michael Kinsley, Mary Duenwald
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