?I am optimistic about the ability of humans to draw the line between appropriate uses and inappropriate uses?
26 Jun, 2006 10:28 am
Larry Goldstein is Chair of the Public Policy Committee of the American Society for Cell Biology. He reviews for Scitizen the ethical debate on stem cells.
Many scientists and many clinicians working on very difficult problems of human diseases and injuries think that the use of human embryonic stem cells in research will enable to open doors previously unavailable to us. It provides a way potentially to replace cell damaged disease - thatís long term goal, itís going to be a hard one but itís potentially doable - and in the shorter term to serve as a valuable research tool using human cells to understand human disorders.
Every new development, every new technology raises ethical debate, what are the specifities of the ethical stem cell debate?
There are probably two major ethical issues of concern in this field. One is that the source of some of the most valuable cells for the research is from the earliest stage of human development and there is controversy, both religious and philosophical, about whether those early stages of human development should be thought of and treated as if they where human stem cells. For example there is a stage in human development called the ďblastocist stageĒ, when the early developing embryo is only a cluster of a couple of hundred cells, and the question is whether that is in some sense a person or whether itís a stage in early development but not itself yet equivalent to an adult human person.
The other issue is that there is a concern among some that the availability of this technology is very powerful and that humans canít be trusted to use this technology appropriately.
Is the ethical debate restricted to embryonic stem cells or are there some concerns about the adult stem cells too?
It really depends to who you talk to. The most intense debate has been about cells from early stages of human development but the fact is that if we look most carefully there are some very serious issues surrounding the use of the so called adult stem cells. For example, many stem cells referred to as adult stem cells sometimes come from fetus material and that is commonly overlooked in the discussion.
We see a decline on the ethical debate concerning cloning, do you think that the debate on stem cells will reintroduce the question of cloning?
Cloning and the stem cells debate are in some way related and in some way they are unrelated. First of all, you have to remember what does cloning mean: cloning means copying. We copy software, we clone and copy human DNA molecules and have for decades, we clone human cells in cancer research and there are those of us who are interested in cloning human stem cells, but none of us are interested in cloning human people. Some of the stem cells we would be interested in, in a sense, cloning would be the so called embryonic type of stem cells, and this is where the debate comes in: that technology could be misused or could be used appropriately. I think part of the problem we see is that there are always legitimate concerns about the development of new technologies. What people forget is that every human technology has the potential to be misused: an automobile can be misused, a hammer can be misused. We routinely have technologies that can be used and misused and we generally have had reasonable wisdom about their uses. Certainly technologies of stem cells are more powerful than the one of a hammer but at the end of the day I am optimistic about the ability of humans to draw the line between appropriate uses and inappropriate uses.
According to you, why the public shows such an interest in this debate?
Partly from an ethical stand point there has been a long standing debate in the West about how the early stages of human development should be viewed from an ethical and legal prospective. That debate is less intense in the Nations outside Western Europe and the United States and so itís a relatively Euro-American centric debate and largely religiously based in my view. The other reason there is a such intense interest is that the promise of the technology is significant because it does potentially give ways to solve problems in human diseases that we really had to solve. There are many human disease we donít really understand. In the absence of a sophisticated understanding of disease mechanisms it is very difficult to develop new therapies.
What is the role of the politics and the media in this controversy?
There is a good and a bad role of politics. A good role of politics is that it is the political community that is ultimately responsible for developing laws and regulations so that the research may proceed in an appropriate way that is sensitive to the needs of the community. The inappropriate role of politics is that sometimes stem cells become a surrogate battle in the battle for power between competing political parties and the issue is less important than who wins and I think that is an unfortunate issue of politic.
The role of the media in my view is to allow communication to the public at large, both from the scientific community and the political and ethical community about what are the issues and hopefully on a good day the role of the media is to educate the public.
Science is evolving very rapidly and becoming more difficult to understand by the non-scientific public. Do you think that this lack of knowledge can deteriorate de debate?
Lack of knowledge always makes possible debates next to impossible, how can you possibly debate what you donít understand. I donít know that the problem is that science is anymore complicated now than it was hundred years ago, science is always working at the edge of human knowledge and experience, that is just the nature of it. All I would say is that an important role of the media is to help members of the public to understand what is truly an issue and try to do it in an accurate fashion and the role of the scientific community is to try to communicate to the media accurate information in a way that reporters can understand so that they can transmit the information to the public. I think that the public has a responsibility as well as the public wishes to participate fully in the debate about the uses and development of scientific technologies then there is a responsibility to take the time to learn the facts and information to the best possible degree and implement that and use it in the debate. The same think apply to the policy makers, there are policy makers that have taken the time to inform themselves and I applaud them for that, and there are policy makers who have not and who have developed strong opinions in absence of information and I will decry that.
Are the ethical concerns on stem cells the same in Europe and USA?
There is no one Europe, every European nation so far as come to different point of view on this debate as far as I can tell. From relatively liberal policies in the United Kingdom to relatively restricted policies in the other nations, certainly in Europe the catholic church has played a major role in the debate as have other religious beliefs. I donít know there is one European point of view yet.
How do you imagine this debate in 20 years from now?
It will be totally different, if you go back 20 years and ask what we where debating 20 years ago, we debate very different things now in many cases in science and ethics. Some questions are always going to be a problem: The nature of humanity, the role of the StateÖ But I think that in stem cells research the science will ultimately go beyond what we are currently debating, but it will raise different issues.
Larry Goldstein thank you for answering Scitizenís questions.
Interview by Francesca Gilibert
Larry Goldstein works at the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the Unviversity of California San Diego, and is chair of the Public Policy Commitee of the American Society for Cell Biology.