NRL News

Ethically and Medically Dubious Experiment Using Embryonic Stem Cells

by | Apr 7, 2011


By Dave Andrusko

In this morning’s Washington Post, we read that the identity of the first patient to receive an infusion of a drug made of human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) has been revealed. It is a partially paralyzed 21-year-old Alabama nursing student by the name of Timothy J. Atchison. How this was arranged is not explained in the story

(, but Atchison talked to the Post’s Rob Stein last night.

The story’s two operative paragraphs are:

“The experiment is the first carefully designed attempt to study an embryonic stem cell therapy. It is seen by supporters and opponents of embryonic stem cell research as potentially pivotal to the future of the research, which proponents say could revolutionize medicine and critics denounce as immoral.

“The trial is primarily assessing safety, but doctors are also testing whether the cells restore sensation and movement.”

By way of preliminaries, opponents line up against the use of ESCs for a host of reasons, not just because they/we consider it immoral. For example, there are ethically acceptable alternatives already helping patients right now—“adult stem cells”—and an alternative way of producing stem cells that are for all practical purposes identical to ESCs–induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells).

And that doesn’t even get to the dangers associated with ESCs which (in combination with acceptable alternatives) have persuaded many to abandon ESC research. Those dangers include the propensity of ESCs to grow out of control to form tumors, even when the cells have supposedly been “tamed” to specialize and stop all growth, as well as formation of misplaced tissues in organs where they shouldn’t occur.

The story makes for fascinating reading. You have to make it to the last few paragraphs to really find out why this experiment is so medically and ethically dubious.

“But in addition to being criticized by those citing moral objections to research using the cells because human embryos are destroyed to obtain them, the study has also raised alarm among some proponents of the research,” Stein writes. “Some argue that the experiment is premature. Others question whether it is ethical. Many fear that the trial risks becoming a major step backward if anything goes wrong, such as the cells causing tumors, or if there is no sign that the cells help.”

Oh, is that all?!

The condition to be a part of the study is that they would have “been paralyzed from the chest down within the previous two weeks.” But to Stein’s credit, he adds still another qualifier: “Some also wonder whether trauma victims who have so recently suffered a life-altering injury might agree to the experiments out of desperation without fully understanding the risks.”

But don’t worry, just a little nibble from that toxic, unethical apple won’t kill you… 

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