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?

"Early embryonic tissue is respected by ensuring that it is used with care only in research that incorporates substantive values such as reduction of human suffering. We believe that the purposes of the [stem cell] research -- its potential to contribute to the fundamental knowledge of human development and to medical and pharmaceutical interventions to alleviate suffering -- provide such substantive values."

The board's statement on those cells taken from aborted fetal tissue (within the first eight weeks after conception) revolves around the fact that the demise of the fetus is not caused by the research procedures. Beyond that, the board said, "the moral obligation to save life may be a sufficiently strong warrant to justify certain uses of the tissue of the dead, and hence to support such research."

There's an odd irony here: Scientists doing work like Harley have to have stem cells to do their research. There's no other way to get stem cells, except from an embryo. Yet, one of the goals of the research is to figure out how to be able to do the research without embryos (for example, use bacteria or yeast to grow stem cells). Talk about your chicken and egg arguments.

But the debate doesn't stop with stem cell research.
Less attention has been focused on the issue of aging, but that doesn't mean it's any less contentious. For instance, once the technology advances, would it be appropriate for more commercial, and arguably less noble, applications, like making wrinkles disappear?

More importantly, are we messing around with nature by prolonging life? In reality, no one has found the key to eternal youth. Immortalizing various body cells does not directly translate into increasing the body's life span. However, by curing age-related disease, science is, in a back-door kind of way, prolonging life. And that's not without consequence.

"Americans are already living longer than most other people," says Lebacqz. "We use more of the world's resources, with much less of the world's population. We really do run the risk that we only continue the imbalance. And that's a major justice issue for me."

The use of animals also brings up some muddy issues. Chief among them is the question of just how much should animals be exploited for human gain.

"People eat animals -- they're killed to support human life," says Lebacqz. "But there's an increasing vegetarian movement, and ecologists who believe that other living things have equal value with human beings, that we should not use other living things for our purposes. I am concerned about what it means to talk about being respectful toward all living things."

Oddly enough, many of these issues may not be resolved until after the fact. To speculate on the future is akin to heresy in both public arenas like the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, the National Institutes of Health, and Congress, as well as private arenas like Geron's board. Not only does the process guarantee that public policy will always be playing catch-up to science, but also that the big picture is rarely on the table. Both of those scenarios are good for biotechnology companies that have invested millions in research, but not necessarily good for the public.

Each incremental step, however good it might be for medical science, pushes the envelope further toward things we might otherwise think are unacceptable, like cloning embryos, but is much less anxiety-producing than considering the big picture as a whole.

"I feel like I've looked at the trunk of an elephant and said, 'Yes, we can affirm this,' " says Lebacqz. "Now we've looked at the ears and said, 'Yes, we can affirm this.'

"To look at the whole elephant we have to put all of those pieces in front of us. My concern is if we can say no by the time we have all those pieces.

"There's a human tendency to push forward," Lebacqz says. "Once you've got Step 1, 2, and 3, will you have doubts about Step 4?"

Call it the price of being first.
The folks at Geron knew their discoveries would gain attention in scientific, even financial, circles. But they never figured on sitting in congressional offices discussing what it might mean. And who knew the president of the United States would be paying attention to some little biotechnology firm in Menlo Park?

"On the one hand, we're just a little biotech company in Menlo Park doing research [far away from the political machinations in Washington]," says Geron's Greenwood. "Of course, it would be naive to think that."

He pauses.
"But we really are just a little biotech company in Menlo Park doing research."

While the ethicists race to catch up with the scientists, the government is running somewhere behind them all, but gathering steam. Thus far, Congress has prohibited government funding for research that involves human embryos. While that doesn't stop private companies from pursuing discoveries, it greatly impedes the process.

University laboratories, where science is tinkered with on a large scale, are beholden to the rules of federal funding. Without the academics, the process of turning discoveries into something real and usable is severely slowed. And, without government funding, the National Institutes of Health, the big dog of public research, is not even in the hunt.

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