(for weeklystandard.com) IAN WILMUT, the creator of Dolly the sheep and newly appointeddirector of Edinburgh University’s Centre for Regenerative Medicine,wants to experiment on dying people with embryonic stem cells–eventhough he admits that such potential treatments “have not been properlytested.”
Wilmut’s plan, which in essence would use people with terminalneurological conditions as lab rats, is the latest example of thedehumanizing impetus that is inherent to embryonic stem-cell researchand human cloning. It is also an important story. With the fall of thefraudulent South Korean cloning researcher Woo-Suk Hwang, Wilmut may bethe world’s premier human cloning researcher. When a scientist of hisinternational stature calls for experimenting on living human beingsbefore such procedures would normally be ethical to perform, it demandsour attention.
Conducting medical research on humans is a tricky business. It isnot the same thing as providing risky but proven medical treatments,which is done for patients. Medical experimentation is done totest subjects in order to further science. The experimenters may hopeto help the subjects, but since the procedures are, by definition, notfully tested, they also have potential to cause great suffering andharm.
According to the Scotsman,Wilmut wants to test embryonic stem cells on subjects with amyotrophiclateral sclerosis or ALS, (commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease),”who face a steady, slow decline and premature death.” There is nodoubt that ALS is a devastating condition. For causes that are not yetknown, it inflicts upon its victims a slow physical–but notmental–collapse culminating in total paralysis and eventual death.
ALS patients are often desperate for a cure. But deep yearning andconsent are not, under generally accepted standards of medicalresearch, sufficient to justify using dying people as subjects inmedical experiments. What is it about stem cells that would compel usto exempt researchers in that field from the usual ethical protocolsthat apply in all other areas of medical research?
Wilmut claims that an exception should apply in this case becausehis proposed experiments would be “high risk, but potentially highgain, trials.” But is this really true? Yes and no. There is plenty ofrisk in ES stem-cell research. But embryonic stem-cell research isnowhere near sufficiently advanced to claim that they are potentially”high gains.” Indeed, animal studies have yet to demonstrate that EScells would be efficacious in treating neurological diseases such asALS.
But we do know that ES cells are currently unsafe to try inhumans. The biggest problem is tumors. Embryonic stem-cell therapiescan cause deadly teratomas, which are lesions made up of severaldifferent kinds of tissues. Indeed, mouse experiments which attemptedto treat Parkinson’s disease with ES cells resulted in a braintumor-caused death rate of 20 percent. As reported in the medicaljournal Neurology, several years ago Chinese doctors attempteda fetal cell experiment to treat a Parkinson’s disease patient.Unfortunately, it appears that the fetal tissue may have beencontaminated by early embryonic tissue. The patient died when theventricles of his brain filled with non-brain tissues such as teeth andhair. Thus, if Wilmut’s proposal is accepted, ALS patients who mightotherwise live for months or years could instead be killed by anagonizing brain tumor.
Some might say, So what, better to die sooner seeking a cure, nomatter how remote the chances, than linger in a helpless condition.
But such attitudes lead off an ethical cliff. Besides, contrary tocommon belief, ALS patients’ lives can be rich and meaningful. Peoplewith ALS can be kept comfortable, can be helped to adjust to thewrenching emotional pain caused by their debilitating condition, andwith medical and other technologies, can remain totally engaged inlife. I have seen it with my own eyes: My friend Bob died of ALS a fewyears ago. Yes, it was tough. But to the end, he found great joy in hisfamily and lived a fulfilling life by earning money for his family withonline investing and starting an art collection. More famously, StephenHawking discovered black holes, traveled the world as an internationalscience celebrity, and sired a child after becoming totally paralyzed from ALS.
EMBRYONIC STEM-CELL RESEARCH and therapeutic cloning areintensely controversial. Many cures have been promised but none havebeen delivered–even in animal models. In the wake of the Woo-Suk Hwangtherapeutic cloning scandal, people may finally realize that theimmediate potential of embryonic stem-cell research has been wildlyhyped. On the other hand, adult and umbilical cord blood stem cellsare showing promise in early human trials. If Wilmut gets his way, thefirst human trials with ES cells would make international headlines andreinforce the dubious idea that the future of regenerative medicinelies most importantly with the embryonic procedures.
Even worse, Wilmut’s proposal leads to a dangerous moral trap thatcould result in society looking upon people with catastrophicconditions as usable commodities. And once we’ve started down thatroad, why limit it to the dying? People in persistent vegetative statescould come to be seen as splendid research subjects.
But dying people are not dead: They are living. And they should betreated as fully equal and included members of the community. Usingthem in medical experiments that are not ready for human applicationwould dehumanize them. The authorities in the United Kingdom shouldreject Wilmut’s proposal out of hand.
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