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Bioethicist addresses stem cell research controversy

Renowned bioethics expert Glenn McGee thinks he’s inadvertently discovered a way of making both proponents and foes of stem cell research angry by not buying either side’s view wholesale.

But the director of the Alden March Bioethics Institute and John A. Balint Endowed Chair in Medical Ethics at Albany Medical College also has some advice for those who have been unable to find common ground: “We need to stop lying, be open to regulation and agree to talk about these situations.”

In a recent talk in the Perella Auditorium at Rauch Business Center, McGee offered a tutorial on stem cell research and the debate that continues to rage over its use. Speaking to nearly 100 students, faculty and staff in a lecture punctuated with humor, political barbs and cartoon, McGee focused on the misconceptions about stem cell research.

In his talk, titled “Small Sacrifices and Big Payouts: A None-Too-Nice Look at the Stem Cell Debate,” McGee made the point that a problem with the stem cell debate is that it is influenced by a limited societal understanding about science in general and stem cell research in particular.

Stem cells are defined by the National Institutes of Health
as “unspecialized cells that renew themselves for long periods through cell division. Under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, they can be induced to become cells with special functions such as the beating cells of the heart muscle or the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.”

Embryonic stem cells, according to McGee, are derived from embryos that are from eggs that have been fertilized in vitro. Within five to seven days a blastocyst, which is made up of about 100 cells, develops in a Petrie dish into whole colonies of individual somatic cells of a variety of types.

The other way of looking at the stem cell debate, McGee says, “is to spin it and claim that the real issue in stem cell research revolves around the fact that scientists are unguarded, excessively entrepreneurial, and at a minimum, clueless about politics.”

He adds, “the effect of this Frankenstein metaphor – scientists working in areas where there hasn’t been enough social research and doing things that are somewhat dangerous without any standards – is that you end up with scientists that become a cowboy, at best, or, at worst, the administrators of the apocalypse.”

Scientists aren’t trying to define what constitutes an embryo, but are forced to. “This results in them doing the craziest gymnastics in the world,” he says.

Adult stem cells as an alternative

A solution proposed by advocates of stem cell research is the use of adult stem cells, he noted.

“Some have proposed, at a minimum, that we should be able to use adult stem cells to do the same thing as embryonic stem cells,” says McGee. “We’ll just figure out a way to de-specialize the cells and have them revert to an earlier level.”

If you can get an adult stem cell to act as an embryonic stem cell, McGee questions, does it have the same standing as an embryonic stem cell?

There are also those cells that don’t bother people, McGee says, like those taken from adults and umbilical cord blood. “These cells do not have any potential unless you mess with them.”

There are also cells where there is no complicity, according to McGee. These are cells from what is left over from embryos that no one was going to use, unusable, or that were dying. “It would be immoral,” says McGee, “to not use them – otherwise their creation it was a pointless act.”

Then there are the truly evil cells, says McGee, such as cells from therapy of clones and cells found in nature (Planet Nine cells).

“Therapy of clone cells,” explains McGee, “is a cell line that is, in fact, you, in some biological sense.” These cells raise moral issues for people, he says, who don’t necessarily believe clones are embryos; but they think that it would be evil to destroy them because they are a lot like embryos, which gives them the same moral status.

“Planet Nine cells,” says McGee, “are cells found in nature that are created in such a way to avoid the debate - a single cell sucked from an embryo or an embryo created that could never develop because it lacks certain genes.”

He adds, “Opponents of the Planet Nine cells argue that taking the most vulnerable creature in the world, sucking out one eighth of its body, and using that to make something that has the same moral fiber as the embryo cloned is not solving the moral problem.”

McGee believes that scientists and others could do better.

“Before the stem cell debate devolves into the abortion debate,” he added, “it would be more considerate to discuss it in different ways so that there can be more intelligent public progress.”

Karen Huang, director of the graduate life office, one of the sponsors of McGee’s lecture said afterwards, “I thought Dr. McGee’s lecture was fascinating, very accessible, entertaining and he was able to make very complex issues understandable.”

McGee’s lecture was sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research; the Visiting Lecturers Committee, the Colleges of Arts & Sciences, Education, P.C. Rossin Engineering & Applied Sciences, and Business & Economics; the Philosophy department; Philosophy Club; Chaplain's Office; Religious Studies; and the Humanities Center. McGee’s talk was the final lecture of the Graduate Student Senate’s Chaotic Lecture Series.

--Sarah Cooke

Posted on Monday, December 05, 2005

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