12/08/2004

Monster Farming

There's a piece over at Slate that covers a very interesting presentation given to the President's Council on Bioethics by council member William Hulbrut. Specifially, it involves creating embryonic stem cells for research without killing embryos.

How could we create functioning parts of an embryo without the whole? By turning off one of the genes that guide embryo formation. Hurlbut's first choice is the human equivalent of cdx2, the gene in mice that directs the formation of the placenta. Without cdx2, the embryonic mouse cells divide but fail to take the shape of a mouse. The plan would be to follow the recipe for cloning—put the nucleus of a body cell into a gutted egg cell—but turn off cdx2. Then, once the cell begins to divide, reactivate the gene, too late to organize the embryo but early enough to make stem cells.

Paul McHugh, one of the council's moderates, finds the idea gruesome. He calls the proposed creation a "weird genetic hybrid" that is "very embryolike" and has been engineered to die. Hurlbut replies, coldly but correctly, that according to the technical definition favored by opponents of stem-cell research, the thing can't die because it was never alive. Leon Kass, the council's chairman, agrees, describing the thing as a "re-engineered entity" that is "embryolike" but not "embryonic." Michael Gazzaniga, the council's most liberal member, calls Hurlbut's strategy a perversion of science. Instead of tinkering with language to fit biology, he observes, Hurlbut is tinkering with biology to fit language.
I'm not sufficiently versed in biology to comment on the feasibility of such endeavors. On its face, the proposal seems to be win-win: researchers get embryonic stem cells and no embryos are destroyed. Is there someone out there with a former mastery of science involved who could offer some more insight?

Update:The Boston Globe has a piece on Hulbrut's proposal which includes this informative infographic on how the process could work. Also, the editors of the American Journal of Bioethics called the idea "voodoo" on their official blog.