Friday 1 February 2008

scientists want to make embryos from dying children's tissue

The government is under pressure to let scientists take tissue from dying children and use it to make human and human-animal embryos. The creation of human or hybrid cloned embryos is morally contentious and highly controversial in the community. On these grounds alone it should not proceed.

The speculative nature of the proposal

Even if there was an ethical argument for such research, the proposal is highly speculative and any potential benefits are unknown. My source, a BBC website story, quotes the bodies which are lobbying for this as writing: "The Bill, as it stands, imposes a barrier to one of the most potent tools for research into the most severe childhood diseases." This is untrue. No-one actually knows whether cloning or the formation of other hybrids has any research value. No-one knows either if such embryo formation can apply to the study of the severe childhood diseases which lobbyists mention. Previous arguments for miracle cures from using embryos have yielded no treatments, and research has arguably proven of limited value. This article seems to reflect similar overblown claims.

There have also been no specific explanations about why hybrid embryos in particular will be of any research or treatment value. Some scientists or other advocates think all they have to do to get an unethical proposal through is to claim that cures for diseases will be forthcoming. The proponents ought to be pressed to explain in greater detail, on reasonable scientific grounds, how they think hybrids will advance research into diseases, and on what already established scientific research using other interspecies hybridisation they are making their claims.

Viable alternatives

There already are good alternative research methods. Work by Yamanaka and others with induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells has made nuclear transfer unnecessary, whether using human or animal eggs. Professor Ian Wilmut, who cloned Dolly the sheep and holds the UK licence to clone humans, announced in November that he was walking away from his cloning licence in favour of iPS, which he declared to be both "100 times more interesting" and "easier to accept socially". Professor James Thomson, who first discovered human embryonic stem cells, confirmed that these new iPS cells derived from human skin had every property of cloned embryonic stem cells, and declared, "Isn't it great to start a field and then to end it?"

Professor Martin Pera, former director of embryonic stem cell research at the Australian National Stem Cell Centre, wrote of "a new year and a new era". He said the generation of iPS cells through direct reprogramming "avoids the difficult ethical controversies surrounding the use of embryos for deriving stem cells". [Nature 451, 135-136 (10 January 2008) doi:10.1038/451135a]


It is generally agreed that consent should be sought from any participant in research, and particular care must apply where vulnerability by age or condition exists. This is a basic principle of research ethics and there are very limited circumstances under which it can be waived. Such circumstances might include:

  • when it is reasonable to believe that the participant would have consented if they were able
  • the risk to participants is minimal
  • the project is not controversial and does not involve significant moral or cultural sensitivities in the community
  • the research supports a reasonable possibility of benefit over standard care
  • any risk or burden of the research is justified by its potential benefits to him or her
  • the research objectives cannot be pursued by any other means.

Even if the proposed research were ethical and even if certain outcomes could be guaranteed, consent could not be waived on several of these grounds.

Ethical objections

Even if can be proved that embryos from dying children's tissue can produce therapies, and even if the consent issue could be addressed, the ethical objections simply rule out the practice. Last year we described those objections in our submission to a parliamentary committee on a bill which was the forerunner to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill now before parliament. We said that the former bill: "Accelerates the waning respect for human life that is marking scientific endeavours in the modern biotechnological era."