Harvard's stem cell misstep

Earlier this month, world-renowned Harvard University announced that it would become the first non-commercial institution in the US to attempt human embryo cloning. All funding is to come from private donations because of restrictions imposed by US President George W. Bush. The decision was made after two years of discussion amongst eight institutional review boards at five institutions. Like many other observers, the New York Times praised the decision as "bold moves made after intense soul-searching". However, not all stem cell researchers approved of the decision. James L. Sherley, of near-by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a Harvard graduate, explains why in this exclusive MercatorNet interview.

MercatorNet: How soon could human embryonic stem cells be used for cures? Harvard is telling potential donors to its stem cell institute that "in as little as a decade" there will be treatments for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and diabetes. It also suggests that the names of many incurable diseases will be eliminated from our grandchildren's vocabularies. Are these predictions realistic?

James Sherley: The question "How soon," is pre-empted by the question: "Could human embryonic stem cells ever be used for cures?" When the errant biological properties of human embryonic stem cells are considered, it is difficult to foresee them ever being used directly as cures in children or adults. This promise was the earliest misleading misinformation from proponents of human embryo research. Because many factors that guide the normal development of embryonic cells are absent in mature tissues, embryonic stem cells placed in adult tissues produce malformed tissues that are cancerous. So, figuring out how to use human embryonic stem cells directly by transplantation into patients is tantamount to solving the cancer problem.

Human embryonic stem cell scientists, who lacked sufficient knowledge of the cell biology of mature tissues, naively promised to develop new therapies with mature cells produced from embryonic stem cells. These scientists overlooked the fact that mature cells, which lack the renewal capability of stem cells, cannot be used for long-term treatment in mature tissues, which require continuous renewal.

There is one strategy by which embryonic stem cells might be used to develop therapies for the tissues of adults and children. If embryonic stem cells could be used to produce tissue-specific adult stem cells, the adult stem cells could be tried for mature tissue therapies. However, since natural adult stem cells are available from informed consenting adult donors, this possible embryonic stem cell-dependent strategy is not absolute, as has been suggested by proponents of human embryo cloning.

Moreover, if derivation of specific adult stem cell types from embryonic stem cells is found to be possible, the derivation process will take longer than using natural adult stem cells and may still produce defective and possibly tumour-forming adult stem cells. However, more to the point, why pursue this uncertain path that requires destruction and exploitation of human embryos, when adult stem cells can be used instead?

Recent articles in the Boston Globe and the Harvard Gazette report that Harvard scientists are claiming two future advances from research with embryonic stem cells derived from cloned embryos. Their first claim is for new cures based on using human embryonic stem cells. Clearly, this will not occur. Their second claim is trumpeted above their now admitted misgivings about the first.

By studying embryonic stem cells derived from human embryos cloned from the cells of individuals with particular chronic diseases, Harvard scientists claim that they will obtain new knowledge about how chronic human diseases develop. It is amazing that such words come out of the mouths of noted developmental biologists who have known for years that simple embryonic stem cell culture is an inadequate model for human development.

MercatorNet: Is there a lesson to be learned from the Hwang debacle? Is fraud an inherent danger in human cloning research -- or was this a unique case which is unlikely to happen again?
  Sherley: There will be few who are immune to the temptations of the potential for significant personal gain from hyping the value of human embryo research. In the current unsettled moral and ethical climate around human embryo research, in the minds of many scientists, being first to clone human embryos guarantees a Nobel Prize and bronze statues in their likeness. When such motivation for fame and fortune is combined with the fragmentary, variable, and overall uncertain regulatory environment surrounding human embryo research, the risk for ethical misconduct is high and pervasive.

This danger is already evident in the "ethical guidelines" that have been developed by Harvard scientists and national scientific organisations like the US National Academy of Sciences. These guidelines and recommendations ignore the fact that the US public is still wrestling with the moral status of human embryos. In the current void of a federally legislated policy, they are racing ahead with human embryo research and announcing obtuse so-called ethical recommendations that ignore the issues of the humanity, right to life, and right to privacy of human embryos. An incorruptible scientific body would self-impose a moratorium on such research until the public debate was resolved. Instead, human embryo research scientists are racing ahead without regard for human life, before the public discovers all the truth and begins to protect human embryos as worthy human beings.

MercatorNet: After four years of debate, do you think that the public is more aware of the difficulties involved in cloning embryos and stem cell research?

Sherley: The public is somewhat more aware of the challenges because significant time has passed without the major breakthroughs that were promised. The investment community has also pulled back, too, upon greater appreciation of both the societal concerns and technical risks involved. However, because feasibility is implicit in most reports on promised human embryonic stem cell therapies, the public largely believes that developing therapies from human embryonic stem cells may be difficult, but not impossible. If the public understood that no wonder therapies were likely to come from embryonic stem cells, the discussion would be over, and human embryos would be safer.

Many who support human embryo research do so because they were told that many IVF embryos were discarded anyway and the death of human embryos would benefit themselves or their loved ones. The first excuse turned out to be a misleading statement by promoters of human embryo research that has now been discredited in several recent newspaper articles. The second excuse pits "a greater good" against "the destruction of embryos for the gain of others," and this is a moral dilemma for sure. However, if the public were fully informed that "a greater good" was extremely unlikely and perhaps impossible, the racers to clone human embryos would be disqualified overnight.

MercatorNet: Harvard reached its decision after two years of consultation with eight institutional review boards and stem cell oversight committees at five institutions. Do you think that the fundamental ethical issues were deeply studied in this process?

Sherley: Recent reports on the outcome of the process indicate that much time was spent on important ethical issues like how to recruit, treat, and compensate women who donate eggs for cloning procedures. However, like the deliberations of the US National Academy of Sciences, the fundamental moral questions of the humanity, right to life, and right to privacy of human embryos seem to have been largely evaded.

MercatorNet: Obtaining eggs from women volunteers is essential for Harvard’s experiments. Do you foresee any problems?

Sherley: Very knowledgeable human endocrinologists, bioethicists, and women's rights advocates have provided prescient warnings regarding the potential for exploitation of women in meeting the demand for egg donors that may be created by human embryo cloning research. There is already an active unregulated service economy based on provision of human eggs for IVF in the US. Currently, women receive significant financial compensation for undergoing an invasive procedure for harvest of their artificially hormonally-matured eggs. The US National Academy of Sciences has recommended that women who donate eggs for human embryo cloning experiments receive no compensation beyond the costs they incur for participation. This is the policy to which Harvard reports that its scientists will adhere.

Even Economics 101 is not required to realize that this is plan may potentially reduce the plight that cloning experiments pose for human embryos. Harvard scientists are likely to find that they cannot recruit sufficient women who will volunteer their eggs to make embryos that will be killed for cloning research, when instead they could receive as much as US$15,000 for eggs that will be used to conceive babies for infertile parents.

MercatorNet: As a world-renowned university, Harvard prides itself on the calibre of its cutting-edge academics, not only in science, but also ethics, theology and politics. But has the desire to maintain Harvard's reputation affected its ethical judgement?

Sherley: The public should demand to hear this question addressed by Harvard professors of ethics, politics, history of science, and economics and also by Harvard professors who have a dissenting view. They may be silent, muted, or unreported on the issue. The public needs to know which is the case. Surely, this revered faculty of original and independent thinkers, who recently cast out their President for his regressive prejudicial ideas, is not monolithic in its view on the moral status of human embryos and their treatment by Harvard scientists.

MercatorNet: You suggested recently that stem cell researchers at Harvard and elsewhere are making contradictory promises. On the one hand, they were saying a couple of years ago that they would never allow cloned embryos to mature. But now they need more developed embryos to study diseases. What do you mean by this?

Sherley: Embryonic stem cells are an artifact of cell culture. The cells from which they originated in early embryos have different properties in the embryo. Many of the diseases proposed for targeting (eg, diabetes, Parkinson's) emerge in the context of many precise interactions among different types of cells that are not present in embryonic stem cell cultures. If these diseases do emerge during embryonic development (which is a proposal, not a certainty), studying them will require that the embryos be matured until the point of their emergence. Human embryo scientists have tacitly agreed that cloned embryos should not be matured beyond an arbitrary early stage of embryo development. (This agreement highlights the deception of their feigned uncertainty on the question of whether human embryos are living human beings.)

However, it is very likely that diseases of adult life, if they show any manifestation in embryos at all, will do so well after this arbitrary stage of maturation. The public can be sure that Harvard's and other scientists, like camels in a tent, will keep inching this boundary forward with newly-crafted, misleading excuses for doing so.

MercatorNet: You seem pretty convinced that human embryos are human beings. Can you explain briefly why?

Sherley: My answer is, "What else could they be -- aliens?" Scientists who want to conduct experiments with human embryos are quick to say what human embryos are not. I challenge them to tell the public what human embryos are. There is only one answer to this question, "living human beings."

MercatorNet: But why can't you convince your colleagues at Harvard and MIT of your point of view? What's the stumbling block?

Sherley: When scientists arrange their own press conferences to announce promises for the future that involve significant self-gain, let the public beware. The stumbling block is non-scientific motivations.

MercatorNet: Stem cell research is an exciting field. As a professor at MIT, do you find that the brightest and best students are entering it? How does a younger generation of scientists view the ethical debate?

Sherley: I do not presume to know the answer to how younger scientists view this issue. The leadership of professional scientific organizations like the American Society for Cell Biology and the International Society for Stem Cell Research have been unwilling to poll their memberships electronically to evaluate such questions. Even for the undergraduate students, graduate students, and post-doctoral associates with whom I work, who are aware of my position and ideas on the subject, I do not know their views.

This being said, many of them are considering or planning careers in adult stem cell research. There is so much exciting science to be done and so much potential for biomedical applications from stem cell research that does not require the death and exploitation of human embryos, that I am absolutely confident that the best and the brightest minds will continue to be attracted to this remarkable field of investigation and application.

James L. Sherley is an Associate Professor of Biological Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Michael Cook is Editor of MercatorNet.


Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

Showing 1 reaction

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • James Sherley