Bleary-eyed, I was about to turn off my TV after watching just about every person in America speculate on the guilt or innocence of John Mark Karr when a news story flashed in front of my eyes.
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"A scientist," the announcer breathlessly pronounced, "has discovered a way to generate stem cells from human embryos without destroying them." I sat back down. If true, this is indeed big news. It would be a rare case in which a scientific advance breaks a moral logjam. Sadly, despite the hype surrounding this story, that has proven to be far from reality.
I went online to see what other news organizations were saying about this new way to make stem cell lines. Words like "breakthrough," "major advance" and "very significant research" were flying all over my computer screen from all the major newspapers, wire services and news outlets.
The media hype machine was running full throttle. But, why? The science involved is not going to lead to any sort of ethical breakthrough.
The chief scientist involved in the highly publicized research is Robert Lanza who works for Advanced Cell Technology, a company that has been in the news before and not always in a positive way. Its announcement a few years ago that it had cloned human embryos turned out to be more heat than light.
Lanza’s current research involves pulling cells known as blastomeres out of human embryos. He took a human embryo in a lab dish to the eight-cell stage of development and took off a single cell. Then he reported growing stem cells from that single cell. Lanza declared that “this removes the last rational reason for opposing” embryonic stem cell research.
But does producing stem cells from blastomeres give us a chance to reach consensus on the ethics of embryonic stem cell research? Hardly.
First, it is not at all certain that the cells grown from embryos at the eight-cell stage of development are exactly the same and just as potent as those taken from a two-day old embryo. If not, they won’t be as useful to medical researchers.
Second, in pulling off a cell this early in embryonic development, some critics of research on embryos are going to oppose Lanza’s idea either because you are putting an embryo at risk or because it is still possible that twinning could have occurred and so each of the blastomere cells need to be treated as potential people and thus not destroyed.
Third, who exactly is going to offer up their embryos for this sort of a biopsy? Not couples who just are trying to have babies since they won’t want anyone lopping cells off their embryos no matter how reassuring the scientists who want them might be that it is safe to do. And if the blastomeres come from embryos being tested for diseases as is done in some clinics — a process known as preimplantation diagnosis — then who is going to want to grow stem cell lines from genetically diseased source cells?
Finally, and most importantly, in order to get at blastomeres you still need to create embryos at infertility clinics. When you do that, you will always wind up with more embryos than you need because we still aren't that good at producing them in the lab. This means there will always be surplus embryos, which will either be frozen or destroyed.
Ultimately this so-called "breakthrough" does little to quiet the critics of embryo destruction or the proponents of stem cell research using human embryos, such as myself, since why not use the unwanted extra embryos rather than going through the rigmarole of pulling cells out of those that make it to the eight-cell stage?
What we have here is hype, not hope.
Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
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