Debate about the developments in stem cell technology, which relates to an application from various scientists in the UK to the HFEA to introduce human skin tissue into animal eggs. The debate included Callum McKellar, who has also asked me to participate in a panel at the Edinburgh Biomedical Ethics Film Festival next month. Here are my unedited notes from the debate, mostly what I said:

News peg

  • current proposal is to use somatic cells – skin cells – these are not special cells, but the egg of an animal might be
  • so, the news item is the creation of human embryos up to 14th day
  • the study will use adult cells (skin) and insert into egg to see egg’s affect on cells
  • seems to be a way of making adult stem cells more powerful
  • use embryo to create stem cells that carry genetic defect responsible for neurological conditions
  • convert stem cells into neurons to study disease – the egg converts the skin cells into stem cells
  • ultimate aim:  use adult stem cells to create other cells for subsequent transplant without fear of immune rejection

initial reaction: a positive way of addressing what is often a stalemate between pro-life and pro-choice views on stem cells, but it is a compromise – involves treating animal life as artifact.

my position:

  • first, this is not a licence to engineer people, but study a disease; which is consistent with the intention of current legislation. where it encounters problems is over creation of an embryo, but this is also unclear because the embryo would be chimeric.
  • what’s needed is further debate about chimera and clarity about what they would entail,
  • engages the wrath of those that might be characterised as pro-life and those who argue on behalf of animal rights, as well as people concerned about species integrity.
  • human dignity is at stake for all parties: using stem cell science to improve the human condition and dignity of those who struggle with debilitating conditions
  • but we shouldn’t be so serious about technology.
  • key question is what are we prepared to allow people who have different value systems to do to themselves? if someone finds this an affront to dignity, does their view take precedence over those who do not see it in this way.
  • certainly be wary of the politicisation of science, but also be wary of reducing science to politics – competing ethical lobby groups. policy has the hard task of fixing ethics within social systems and compromises will be made. this licence does not seem to great a compromise for pro-life advocates. for those who argue for pro-choice, they might claim much more.

our attitude to animals

  • gene therapy research looking at extending mobility and functionality throughout life. major market in US for dog research – people want their dogs to run around for as long as possible.
  • in this case, issue seems to be whether we allow manipulation of animal egg. we wouldn’t allow the reverse to take place – inserting animal tissue into female egg – but I don’t see how one argues on behalf of personhood for an animal. those who would argue against the insertion of animal tissue into human eggs rely on a concern over dignity and personhood. for animals, less clear that this could be the claim.

 From the Guardian, related story:

British scientists are seeking approval to create embryos by fusing human cells with animal eggs in controversial research which will boost stem cell science and tackle some of the most debilitating and untreatable neurological diseases. Three teams in London, Edinburgh and Newcastle are to submit simultaneous applications to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority this month, requesting licences to create early-stage "chimeric" embryos that will be 99.9% human and 0.1% rabbit or cow. The HFEA has sought legal advice and encouraged the applications. The licences will allow scientists to remove the nuclei from animal eggs and replace them with human cells, leading to embryos containing the complete set of human genes, plus dozens of animal genes that sit inside tiny energy-making structures called mitochondria.