Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Human Primordial Stem Cells

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Human Primordial Stem Cells

Article excerpt

In November 1998 reports that researchers at the University of Wisconsin and Johns Hopkins University had successfully isolated and cultured human primordial stem cells captured the attention of the media and the bioethics community. The research opens exciting, if still technically quite distant, prospects of new therapies for diseases like Parkinsonism, heart disease, and many other conditions. The stem cells apparently have the capacity to differentiate into any of the human body's cell types. If their differentiation can be controlled, they could be used to grow healthy tissue that would augment or replace diseased tissues.

At the same time, the isolation of stem cells--which involves the extraction and manipulation of cells harvested either from the inner mass of blastocysts or from the gonadal tissue of aborted fetuses--rekindles debate about the moral status of these entities and what we may ethically do with and to them. Importantly, these studies also raise questions about the interplay between private funding and public oversight of morally contested research.

Shortly after the Wisconsin and Johns Hopkins studies appeared in Science and, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Ethics Advisory Board convened by Geron Corporation, the private research funder, invited the Hastings Center Report to consider for publication its analysis of the issues raised by the research. In the symposium that follows we welcome the opportunity to make public the EAB's report and to offer the reflections of other scholars on the ethical challenges of research with human primordial stem cells.--B-JC, GEK

Biomedical science is advancing at an unprecedented rate. Important scientific breakthroughs with implications for the diagnosis and treatment of human illness are published daily: sequencing the human (and certain animal) genomes, assigning structure and function to isolated gene products; the simultaneous analysis of thousands of expressed genes in cells; the discovery of new drugs by means of automated screens of multimillion compound chemistry libraries; and the list goes on.

Every so often, however, a discovery is made that stands out in significance even from these kinds of exciting breakthroughs. …

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