Lecture breaks down ethics of stem cell research

Valeska Okragly

To begin the Edward F. Mielke Lecture Series in Biomedical Ethics, Jeffrey Kahn, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota, gave a lecture on stem cell research entitled, “Little Cells, Big Issues: Ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research.” Professor Kahn has many credentials in stem cell research, with two upper level degrees from Johns Hopkins and Georgetown and a B.A. in Microbiology from UCLA.

Kahn is the author of the 1998 book Beyond Consent: Seeking Justice in Research and is the author of the CNN.com biweekly column “Ethics Matters.”

Kahn also served on the staff of the White House Advisory on Human Radiation Experiments with Lawrence biomedical ethics professor Patrick Boleyn-Fitzgerald.

In his lecture, Kahn outlined the guidelines for stem cell research. First, he defined stem cells as pluripotent cells, or cells that can become any other cell. They are very useful in the study of development and degenerating diseases.

The sources for these cells are human embryos left over or created by in vitro fertilization clinics, discarded fetal tissue, and adult stem cells from bone marrow. The last is the easiest to get around ethical issues.

On the other hand, the human embryos from fetal tissue or in vitro fertilization are a cause of ethical debate because they constitute human research but lack any real oversight system or process.

After citing these sources, Kahn gave a brief history on the regulation of their use in research.

Since the nineties, governments have placed regulations on such research. In 1993, fetal tissue from induced abortions could be used in research, but embryo research still could not be used.

In August, George W. Bush said that no new embryos could be harmed and that only 72 cell lines would be federally funded. No other cell lines could be harmed under federal funding, but the statement did not prohibit private funding.

Professor Kahn cited the United Kingdom as having more cooperation between the government and both publicly and privately funded scientists via the Human Fertilization and Embryonic Authority (HFEA).

After outlining this brief history, Kahn said of the moral status of the human embryos that there is a “continuum from [treating them] as mere tissue to persons.”

He took a poll asking the audience where would they draw the line at research: from using fetal tissue to using cloned cells to left over IVF cells, etc.

The small hand poll revealed many different opinions. Kahn said the lack of consensus is the reason the United States needs an open forum in discussing these opinions and creating an open policy on the stem cell issue.

Kahn also suggested that there should be global discussion on this front, noting that if one country is more strict than another, research, and the money with it, could easily go to the more lax country. Hence, Kahn said, there should be a global consensus on embryonic research.

Kahn said that even in the United States this is happening. California has been very liberal with the idea of stem cell research, while Nebraska wants to stop fetal research at the University of Nebraska.

Kahn finished by saying, “The worst thing is to be stuck as we are (in this debate).