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>  News Releases >   2005 >   November

The Ethics of Stem Cells

Dartmouth ethics professor discusses promise and pitfalls of stem cell research

Audio transcript (return to video)

There are two main ethical issues facing stem cell research around the world today. The upfront issue, of course, concerns the state and status of the human embryo and whether it's permissible to destroy human embryos in order to develop stem cell lines. Down the line, we're going to have a very serious set of issues around actually using them in human beings for transplant and therapeutic purposes. How safe are they? Will they become cancerous once they are implanted in an individual, and so on? What is the long-term effect of transplanting foreign material or even one's own embryonic type material into one's body?

Therapeutic cloning is one of the most promising approaches in regenerative medicine. First of all because it permits us to produce stem cells that match your own body type. This is not an allotransplant of foreign material. It's your own cells brought back to their embryonic status.

Beyond that therapeutic cloning is very promising in teaching us how to reprogram cells from the start. The day will come--probably not in my lifetime, but beyond that--when we will be able to take a cell from a person's body and reprogram that cell back to its juvenile form. So literally give people wholly new blood systems. And the way to get there is through understanding how the egg reprograms the nuclear DNA, which occurs in therapeutic cloning. But then taking that learning and applying it to cell technologies generally.

I don't want to be uncharitable, but the current administration's approach to biotechnology by and large strikes me as disastrous. The government has repeatedly threatened punitive legislation to shut down this area. And the consequence has been that the NIH has really not had the resources or funding for this. And most unfortunately, private venture capital that could support independent firms going into the area has dried up. The consequence is now that it's countries like Korea or China, which are actively funding this research from their governments, that are moving ahead in this area.

I think that by the end of the century medicine, as we know it, is going to be profoundly transformed. People who are in serious accidents will have new skin and bone from their own DNA available to them. Aging will not be stopped. We will still age. But the profound conditions of aging that limit people's independence and mobility will be addressed. New organs for people. I really see a vision of a medicine that provides people health from birth through good old age is what we're dealing with here. And I'm willing to fight for it, especially to see that the ethical questions are properly understood and don't become an impediment to responsible research.

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