Biotechnology And Ethics

  • Category: Science
  • Words: 1943
  • Grade: 100
In the November 13, 2000 issue of The Scientist, the article "Stem Cell Discoveries Stir Debate," three major topics are discussed. This article discusses the history behind isolated embryonic stem cells (ESCs), and the discovery of isolated adult-derived stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are cultured embryonic cells that continue to divide without differentiating. Diana L. Clarke of the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, Medical Nobel Institute states that "embryonic stem cells are totipotent and can be induced to differentiate a variety of cell types when cultured"(1) Totipotentency is defined as a description of cell state during embryonic development in which the cells have not yet differentiated and retain the ability to produce every type of cell found in the developing embryo and adult animal"(2). Clarke states that "multicellular organisms are formed from a single totipotent stem cell"¦as this cell and its progeny undergo cell divisions, the potential of the cells becomes restricted"¦and [they] specialize to generate cells of a certain lineage"(1). The ESCs have important implications in medical fields since they have the potential to develop into whole organs.
        The first issue addressed in the article "Stem Cell Discoveries Stir Debate" is embryonic stem cells versus adult stem cells (ASCs). David A. Prentice a professor at Indiana State University and founder of Do No Harm summarizes the great potential of ASCs when he suggests that "ASC transplants will not face immune-system rejection, will not become malignant as long-cultured ESCs may, and will generate desired target cells more reliably than will ECSs"(3). The primary difference between ASCs and ESCs lies in the expression patterns of large numbers of genes. Clarke states that "although ESCs are totipotent, they do not display their full potential in certain situations"(1). Apparently, some cells are differentiating and some are not, leading to up- regulation and down- regulation of the corresponding genes.
        The second issue that is addressed is that of Embryonic Germ cells (EGCs) versus Embryonic Stem Cells (ESCs). An EGC refers to any cell that eventually produces gametes that is found in a developing embryo(4). ESCs are "derived from totipotent cells of the early mammalian embryo and are capable of unlimited, undifferentiated proliferation in vitro"(5). Both EGCs and ESCs are pluripotent, or have the ability to develop or act in any of several possible ways, or to affect more than one organ or tissue. EGCs have been demonstrated to have more substantial problems when used as therapeutic agents as compared to ESCs. M. Azim Surani, a professor at the Welcome/CRC Institute of Cancer and Developmental Biology at the University of Cambridge concluded that mice injected with EGC injections displayed fetal overgrowth and skeletal abnormalities, whereas ESC- injected embryos were normal(3). It is worth noting that the definition of "normal" was not defined. Surani concluded that imprinting, the phenomenon in which a gene's expression depends on the parent who transmits it, often linked to methylation of one of the parental cell lines, was to blame(3). The imprinting of genes in embryonic cells in vitro appears to be correlated to the culture conditions.
The final issue addressed in "Stem Cell Discoveries Stir Debate" is the use of cell cultures in cloning. There is a significant difference in the cell potential of mouse ESCs when compared to human and primate ESCs. Mouse ESCs appear to be pluripotent because they can develop into virtually all cell types except the trophoblast, a cell from which the chorion and amnion are derived. Human and primate ESCs however, are totipotent, and can differentiate into any cell type. Although mouse embryos can be coaxed into developing trophoblast stem cells (TSCs), that are able to differentiate into trophoblast derived structures, a combination of ESCs and TSCs results in a cell aggregate, not into a viable, organized embryo (3).
A.W.S. Chan of the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center in Beaverton, Oregon is working out some of the difficulties associated with cloning such as shortening telomeres and fetal and newborn mortality rates. He and his colleagues have cloned a viable Rhesus monkey from ¼ of an embryo. Tetra, as she has been cleverly named is the next in an ever-growing line of genetically engineered offspring. This method termed "splitting," involves the division of multi-celled embryos to produce sets of separate embryos. Chan concludes ""¦cloning by splitting results in genetically identical offspring"¦which results in 31% pregnancy and 8% births" (6).
The potential of these cells has stirred many heated arguments between scientists, theologians, and ethicists, raising the debate over the moral implications concerned with the laboratory cloning and harvesting of organs. In my opinion, the real problem with this type of research was not addressed in this article, ethics.
Pick up a newspaper, magazine, or watch the news on television and one cannot help but come across the latest, greatest biotechnological experiment which promises to save mankind from the perils of disease. Are these experiments just a glimpse of what the future has in store for the biotechnological sector, or are they the precursors to the second coming of Mary Shelley's Prometheus? God only knows what secrets lie in the deep dark bowels of the biotech labs.
        In the pursuit of any goal, the potential for tunnel vision exists. Too often, people become infatuated with the completion of said goal without ever having stopped to think about the ramifications. For example, "Fat Man and Little Boy," the two atomic bombs that were deployed upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively. The goal was to devastate the Japanese and force their consequent surrender from World War II, the long term affects of this action were not considered or even known. Flash shadows of the victims paint the walls of some of the buildings in the cities that were not completely destroyed; today's victims are shadowed by genetic disorders, malignant tumors and leukemias. That was only the beginning.
        The first successful use of the atomic bomb sparked the "Cold War" and its subsequent arms race. The power of the world lied in the ability to split the atom and harness its energy. Unfortunately, the weakness of the world also lied in this ability. The issue of nuclear waste was not initially an issue, more blind fumbling. Now that science and medicine have determined that nuclear waste is deadly to humans, an alternative form of disposal is being considered; launch it into space! Apparently the government has not learned the lesson from overlooking consequence before taking the proverbial leap. How can anyone ensure that this method will have none? They cannot. As a result, many more future generations will be potentially threatened because of oversight.
        Perhaps Mary Shelley's Frankenstein should be a required read to all potential scientists. From the very beginning of the story warnings against blind exploration are apparent. For example, Victor Frankenstein's horrific creation is meant to serve as a warning for Walton during his search for the Northwest Passage. Fortunately, Walton is wise and heeds the warning. How many of these warnings are modern scientists willing to overlook? Granted, Frankenstein is a work of fiction, but it contains a central theme that is commonly taken for granted, "look before you leap." I believe that Shelley's character M. Waldman said it the best when he tells Victor "learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow." Victor does not heed this advice.
        Do we, as humans not have the foresight to consider the consequences of our actions? Not if Waldman's belief that "the labors of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind" holds true. Consider the genetic engineering concepts behind producing dairy cows that produce higher volumes of milk in less time. The problem here is that the gene pool is shrinking. A farmer who does not acquire this technology will certainly fall to the wayside if he does not buy into this concept. While "keeping up with the Jones'," we effectively reduce the size of the gene pool thereby placing the dairy cow at considerable risk for a genetic population bottleneck. The problem with a population bottleneck is that there is not much room for a species to survive a catastrophic disease because all members essentially share the same genes (that lack resistance). The result? Another potentially extant species.
        Genetically engineered crops fall into the same category. Wheat, oranges, strawberries, and potentially every crop that comes to mind can be genetically altered to produce bigger yields, ripen quicker, or be juicier. Does this pose a potential problem? We received a warning from the over one million dead Irishmen who starved in 1846 as a result of the "Great Famine." The famine was caused by potato blight. Blight arrived in Ireland in 1845 but it was late in the season and its effect on the potato crop was not significant. It over-winters in potatoes that are not dug in autumn. The following year when the potato stalks grow; blight releases air-borne spores, which infect any potato plants it comes in contact with. Talk about killing a fly with a sledgehammer.
        Certainly these examples have positive outcomes such as feeding the hungry and driving the economy. But, they say those who do not master history are doomed to repeat it. Careful planning must be taken to avoid these potential complications, rather than considering only the bottom line. Whether it be cows or crops, or cloned animals or body parts, great care needs to be taken because we are truly treading on thin ice. The problem with an experiment is that you can never be absolutely sure of the outcome. If you were sure of the outcome, then what good is doing the experiment? The potential for biotechnology is vast, but must be undertaken with great care. The miracle cure for a deadly disease may very well lie within a gene, but so too can another deadly disease or defect. Dr. Frankenstein's creature can take virtually any form.
In conclusion, these articles add to the ethical debate of whether or not cloning is morally right or wrong. Mary Shelley may have had prophetic insight when she penned the short novel "Frankenstein." Perhaps these researchers have been blinded with science and cannot see the storm brewing on the horizon. Gene therapy and organ cloning certainly have many important roles in medicine, an acceptable donor may be right around the corner, although in a test tube.

Cited Literature
1.        Clarke, D. L.,Johansson, C. B., Wilbertz, J., Veress,B., Nilsson, E., Karlstrom, H., Lendahl,U. and Frisen, J. (2000) Science. 288, 1660-1663.
2.        Hartwell, L.H., Hood, L., Goldberg, M.L., Reynolds, A.E., Silver, L.M., and Veres, R.C. (2000) Genetics: From Genes To Genomes., McGraw-Hill Higher Education, Boston, MA.
3.        Steinberg, D., (2000). "Stem Cell Discoveries Stir Debate." The Scientist. 14[22], 1, 14-15.
4.        Issacs, A. (1996). Concise Science Dictionary 3rd Ed., Oxford University Press. NY,NY.
5.        Thompson, J.A., Itskovitz-Eldor, J., Shapiro, S.S., Waknitz, M.A., Sweirgiel, J.J., Marshall, V.S., and Jones, J.M. (1998) Science. 282, 1145-1147
6.        Chan, A.W.S., Dominko, T. Leutjens, C.M., Neuber, E., Martinovich, C., Hewitson, L., Simerly, C.R., and Schatten, G.P. (2000) Science. 287, 317-318.

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