Thursday, September 14, 2006

Text from ACT's Ethics Chair to U.S. Senate Subcommittee

Last week officials of Advanced Cell Technology of Alameda, Ca., appeared before a U.S. Senate subcommittee and were scolded by two U.S. Senators in connection with ACT's extraction announcement last month. Here is the complete prepared text of Ronald M. Green, director of Dartmouth's Ethics Institute and chair of Ethics Advisory Board to ACT, to the Senate Labor, Health & Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee. The statement of Robert Lanza follows this item. Both statements were supplied by ACT at the request of the California Stem Cell Report.

(September 6, 2006) Good morning, Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of the committee. My name is Ronald M. Green. I am a professor at Dartmouth College and Director of Dartmouth’s Ethics Institute. I also serve as the chairman of Advanced Cell Technology’s Ethics Advisory Board. I would like to emphasize that I am a university-based bioethicist and that I have no financial interest whatsoever in ACT’s technology.

I believe that the method of stem cell derivation announced by ACT researchers in their August 24 report in the journal Nature represents a real opportunity to move human embryonic stem cell research forward in this country in a way that respects the ethical sensitivities of the vast majority of our citizens.

Dr. Lanza has already touched on some of the key ethical issues. He has stressed how this research could be conducted in the context of preimplantation genetic diagnosis(PGD) without adding any additional risk of harm to the embryos involved in this procedure.

Dr. Lanza has also shown that the extracted individual cells cannot reasonably be regarded as individual or independent human beings. No cells extracted at this stage of embryonic growth could go on to full term development.

There are two remaining ethical concerns that I would like to address. First, there is the connection between this new method and both IVF and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Some people object to both these technologies because they involve the manipulation of embryos and because parents using these procedures can elect not to implant some of the embryos produced in this way. But this objection is made by only a small minority. The overwhelming majority of Americans support both procedures. IVF helps infertile couples have children and PGD allows those who carry dread genetic diseases to have healthy children. Both procedures help people have children that otherwise would never have been conceived or born. In this respect, both are profoundly “pro-life.”

Second, there is the concern that the embryos used in this research did not survive the experiment. Since the publication of the Nature report some critics have emphasized this fact even though it remains true that the method developed by ACT scientists requires no further destruction of any embryos. I would like to point out that because this research was privately funded, this experiment was legal. It was also approved by ACT’s Ethics Advisory Board and by an additional institutional review board that was mandated under Massachusetts law. The embryos used were donated by people who had fully consented to the research and understood, and even required, that the embryos would not be allowed to go on to further development.
It is not unique that the initial research needed to develop morally acceptable methods or materials do not meet everyone’s approval, but this does not impugn the methods or materials produced as a result of that research. One example is the polio vaccines we use today. Some of the initial research on these vaccines was conducted with a technique that required the use of tissues from aborted fetuses. Later, this approach was replaced by other methods.

Almost no one today refuses polio vaccination for their children on the grounds that they object to the methods used in the first experiments. I would point out that even President Bush has been willing to use the harmless downstream results of research to which he objects. All of the stem cell lines being used in federally funded research today were produced by embryos that were destroyed for this purpose before the President’s August 2001 directive. The President could have said that none of these lines should be used because they were created in a way he regards as morally objectionable. But he did not. He concluded that so long as no future harm is done, this valuable resource could be used.

Thanks to this research breakthrough, we are in exactly the same position today. If Congress were to approve legislation that funded research on lines generated by this new method, and if President Bush were to permit such legislation to pass into law, both the members of Congress and the President could honestly turn to the American people and say that no human embryo ever again needs to be harmed or destroyed to produce the stem cell lines we need for federally funded research.

Many scientists believe that we need several hundred new federally funded stem cell lines in order to have the genetic diversity needed for research. Well over 2,000 PGD procedures are conducted in this country each year. If just one out of three of the couples using this procedure authorized the harmless derivation of a cell line from the extracted cell of each of the embryos they chose to implant, we could produce at least fifty new cell lines every year from now on. The derivation of these cell lines would cause no harm to any of the donor embryos, a fact of critical importance for both the ethical and legal authorization of this research.

Let me conclude by stating that I am not a scientist. Although I have been impressed by the quality and the integrity of ACT scientists, their work will have to be replicated by other researchers before we can say that it is ready for wide use. But if Congress begins the legislative initiatives to test this method and fund research based on it, we can begin to move toward the kinds of cures and therapies that stem cell research promises.
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