On August 23, Advanced Cell Technology, a private, Worcester, Mass.-based biotechnology firm, announced to the world that it had developed a means of acquiring embryonic cells that would put to rest ethical concerns about this type of research.
In a study published online in the journal Nature, ACT researchers claimed to have retrieved single cells of two- to three-day-old human embryos (consisting of eight to 10 cells) to produce two new stem-cell lines.
This process, they said, would leave the embryos themselves intact and able to survive “in most cases.” Said ACT’s Dr. Robert Lanza, the study’s lead author: “We hope this method can be used to increase the number of stem cell lines available for federal funding – and thus give the field a badly needed jump-start.”
The media dutifully hyped ACT’s claim. The Washington Post coverage was headlined: “Stem cells created with no harm to human embryos.” The New York Times led its coverage with, “In new method for stem cells, viable embryos.” “Embryos spared in stem cell creation,” trumpeted U.S.A. Today, while the Los Angeles Times celebrated, “Stem cell advance spares embryos.”
But the ground-breaking technique isn’t quite all that was promised in the initial news reports. The process is known to be used in the IVF industry, mainly for pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, but also for what is called ‘twinning.” Called blastomere separation, the cells removed from the early-stage embryo can, in some cases, begin to divide and develop as separate embryos.
Lanza admitted that the process was difficult to develop. “We had to work out a different technique and initially, we weren’t sure that it was going to work. It was pretty tough. Eventually, it worked like a charm.”
The “study” – which was actually a 200-word letter to the editor – does not note how many embryonic human beings were destroyed in determining the applicability of the process to stem cell research.
Science writer Michael Fumento noted in the American Spectator that, “In fact, none of the 16 embryos involved in the study by medical director Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) survived.”
Richard Dorflinger, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pro-life office, said: “It does not solve the ethical dilemma. It’d be irresponsible to claim now that this is totally safe.” The study says the team created two stable human embryonic stem cell lines that behaved like conventional embryonic stem cell lines. “They’ve now been growing for over eight months, are entirely normal genetically and they were able to generate all of the cell types of the body.”
William Hurlbut, a Stanford University professor and member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, points out that the study does not explore what, if any, long-term effects the removal of a blastomere might have on a human body at such an early stage of its development, should the individual survive to birth. “It might be serious effects, it might be minor changes, it might be nothing. We just don’t know,” Hurlbut told Newsweek.
The ethical principle of concern to pro-life advocates, as old as the ancient Greeks’ Hippocratic Oath, is that human beings cannot be subjected to treatment that might harm them unless there is some medical benefit to be had. Lawyer and bioethics commentator Wesley J. Smith writes, “It strikes me that if such a procedure did harm the later-born baby, it would constitute immoral human research and perhaps would be criminal. At the very least, there would sure be one hell of a lawsuit.”