Science of the Lambs

Buying Dolly the duplicated sheep has brought researchers at the Bay Area's Geron Corp. to the threshold of remarkable frontiers in transplants and cloning. Do we want to follow their lead?

Now, the same sort of laboratory work that Hollywood used to scare the pants off of America is the future of medicine.

In theory, each scientific breakthrough furthers man's ability to cure disease and better human health, which in turn improves the quality of life. The hope of millions of people suffering from afflictions like cancer, Parkinson's, and cardiopulmonary disease hangs in the balance. All of which raises the point that, if you have the ability to help the sick, shouldn't you?

Not without facing the fear.
Church and state are scrambling to catch up with what is being done in labs like Geron's, and countless others around the globe. The discoveries thrust forward serious ethical issues that no one has yet answered. Not the public policy-makers. Not even the scientists.

Well aware that its ethics will be challenged as much as its science, Geron put together a five-member ethics advisory board last year. The board -- which has no financial ties to the company -- is charged with reviewing, debating, and advising on ethical aspects of the research Geron performs and supports.

Critics could certainly argue that the official thinkers only review what Geron offers up, that they have no real power to stop projects, and that the board is really just a public relations move to head off stockholder angst.

But Geron's advisory board is made up of bioethics heavyweights, most of whom are also talking to Congress and the president. Chief among them is Karen Lebacqz, a professor at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, along with colleague Ted Peters, and Laurie Zoloth-Dorfman, an ethics consultant and professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University.

The company certainly didn't have to invite more opinions into its business. An easier plan might have been to simply push forward and let the government sort it out, which could be never.

The Geron board is virtually alone in its quest -- no other body has looked at and debated the issues involved and come to any sort of conclusion, although the National Bioethics Advisory Commission is trying but remains a few steps behind the private sector.

And, as if that weren't bad enough, Geron's ethics board members are hamstrung because they can't talk to anyone about much of what they are doing. Academics are used to bouncing things around a bit with other respected minds, but Geron's proprietary interests could be compromised by such behavior.

The group originally planned to meet once or twice a year. Now it's meeting every three months or so. Much like their colleagues in the national arena, Geron's ethics panel is scrambling to keep up with science.

The mother of all bioethics issues, of course, is human cloning. Technically speaking, scientists are darned near able to make people. Of course, in the wake of Dolly, everyone in the scientific community -- including Geron -- has officially agreed not to do such a thing. It's even against the law (the fine for attempting human cloning in California is $1 million). So, for the time being anyway, Dr. Mengele's cloned kids in The Boys From Brazil remain an unimitated work of art, and the reproductive cloning issue remains moot.

Meanwhile, everything about stem cell research is controversial, even the words involved -- embryonic stem cell, germ cell, fetal tissue, blastocyst, egg, and so on. The language is very much a part of issue No. 1 on America's moral agenda: abortion. Using embryos for research is a few chapters past an abortion debate that's yet to run its course.

"There are countries in the world that have laws against doing certain things with embryos," says Lebacqz. "Suppose that an embryo is defined as the product of the fertilization of egg by sperm. [Cell transfer] is not from a fertilized egg. But once you put the nucleus in it, is that an embryo?

"Much of our language comes out of the abortion debate where we could assume that the entity we're talking about comes from the product of a sperm-fertilized egg. This is not easily applicable to the things we're looking at."

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops and a host of other pro-life organizations are pretty clear about their opposition to laboratory-created embryo research, which is not surprising. It would be ethically difficult to support harvesting cells from embryos if you believe that life begins at conception. Meanwhile, the NCCB is walking a fine line on the issue of using cell tissue from aborted fetuses, stating that research is OK so long as the fetus was aborted spontaneously, or naturally.

And the conundrum hardly ends there. In fact, raising a single question is like opening Pandora's box. If human embryo cells are needed for research, would that encourage women to donate eggs specifically for science? Should people who have donated unused embryos (originally created by in vitro fertilization) be paid, since the company using them stands to make money off their research? Would the use of fetal tissue for research somehow encourage abortion?

Last year, Geron's ethics board concluded that human stem cell research could be conducted ethically, under specific conditions. The board stated:

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