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A tiny step forward

Researchers have managed to produce live-born mice (original article) descended from induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS cells), cells taken from adult animals and treated to become stem cells. That individuals could be produced from embryonic stem cells was already known, but this proves that the IPS cells can produce all kinds of cells in an adult body. Good news for people uneasy about the need for embryonic stem cells… or is it?

If one argues that it is wrong to use embryonic stem cells because embryos carry moral rights, then the question is whether the creation of IPS cells produce something that also has moral rights.

To grow the stem cells into an animal researchers currently inject them into an early embryo that carries twice the usual number of chromosomes (a tetraploid embryo). Such an embryo cannot develop by itself, but it can become placental tissue for the injected cells. The current method of making such embryos is by fusing exising embryos, a process an embryonic stem cell critic no doubt will find morally wrong. But it is perhaps possible to achieve using a method without conception, and in any case IPS cells will be used more for research and tissue repair than reproduction.

If the ability to grow into an adult, right-bearing organism when placed in the right environment gives an embryo a special status, then it would seem the IPS cells have that status. This is regardless of whether they will actually be placed in a tetraploid embryo (otherwise the stem cell critic would have no problem with embryonic stem cells made in the lab that are never intended to be implanted anywhere).

One way out would be to argue that the genetic recombination during conception is necessary for the creation of a new entity, and this does not occur in the IPS case. But this does not occur in the case of reproductive cloning either. So either the clones have no rights or special value (which nobody to my knowledge believes), or there is something else giving rise to the special considerations. The forced genetic expression in the IPS cells is not enough: again few if any people would claim that genetic changes that do not strongly alter development beyond normal would alter the moral status of an embryo. It does not seem that the moral status of an embryo depends on its past, only on its future potential or current state.

The real issue to most people is of course less tied to the causal history of a (would-be) embryo and more to other, fuzzier issues of the value of allowing natural processes to unfold, disgust against transgressing various body or species boundaries or plain scepticism against the value of research. As long as IPS cells are seen as being merely cells beloning to an adult being cultured outside the body, used for the widely lauded goal of improving health, then they will be uncontroversial. They could just as well be framed as genetically modified and cloned, with the potential to become babies using a Frankensteinian process and leaving future people treated with them genetically altered. The framing does not affect the ethics of what is actually done, but it does have a large effect on how acceptable the activity is viewed in society. Genes, stem cells, mergers and splits of embryos, these things do not directly exist in our social reality. They are abstractions that are only weakly coupled to the real moral intuitions people have. We should hence be sceptical of claims that subtle differences in procedure on the cellular level have significant moral effects on the human level.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Hi
    Induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells is an alternative methods for studying diseases that are more robust and better simulate how the disease develops in humans.” I agree with your information.
    Thank u!

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