- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2005

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic and Wake Forest University are urging fellow scientists and physicians to pause for “ethical reflection” before embarking on embryonic stem-cell experiments.

“Before asking ‘Can we do it?’ scientists should ask ‘Should we do it?’” said cell biologist and bioethicist Nancy L. Jones of Wake Forest’s Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina.

“We need to do the ethical reflection before we get into the experimentation,” she said.

Ms. Jones is an adviser to the Office for Human Research Protections at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees ethical standards in research involving human subjects.

Researchers have heralded stem cells extracted from discarded embryos at fertility clinics as potential treatment for serious illnesses — to the distress of those who think the practice violates the sanctity of life, or could turn embryos into a commodity in the lucrative biotechnology field.

In recent years, researchers have developed protocols to create embryos that have no chance of growing into viable human beings, which they say should exempt them from ethical restraints.

The procedures are not “morally neutral,” said Ms. Jones and research partner Dr. William Cheshire, a neurologist with the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., and a bioethicist at the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, an Illinois-based nonprofit group.

“It is essential to examine which biologic attributes should define embryonic humanity, because these entities lay now before us in the petri dish,” the pair note in the current issue of Ethics & Medicine, the group’s medical journal.

They contend that “novel” ways of creating embryos raise the same troubling questions.

Earlier this month, for example, Stanford University researchers announced they had bred mice with brains containing 1 percent human cells; the researchers plan to use stem cells from aborted fetuses to create a mouse with a totally human brain.

The work was approved by the university’s ethics committee, which conceded the project was “creepy” but advised it would be halted should a mouse display human behaviors. Project director Dr. Irv Weissman took issue with those who put “their own moral guidance in the way of this biomedical science.”

“When the barrier between human and animals is broken down, could science unintentionally create the next pandemic?” Ms. Jones said. “We need to do these things in a thoughtful way and not just consider the one experiment we’re working on.”

Thoughtfulness might become an afterthought when research is rushed into application, she said.

“Society needs to be ready. I’m all for science, but I don’t think we go the distance in being stewards of our scientific research,” Ms. Jones said.

In the meantime, the National Academy of Sciences plans to issue ethical guidelines for stem-cell research in the next few months, a spokesman said Wednesday.

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