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December 5, 2022

Panelists debate the implications and ethics of stem cell research

By MEDHA KALLEM | October 30, 2020



Panelists agreed that as advancements in genetic techniques evolve, researchers should be cognizant of social and health inequities.

The Alexander Grass Humanities Institute (AGHI), in conjunction with Great Talk, Inc., hosted a panel of scientists to speak about the ethical considerations and implications of stem cell research on Oct. 21.

The event was moderated by Director of AGHI William Egginton. The four panelists included two experts in genomics research, a journalist who specializes in the role of technology in biomedical research and an expert in medical law.

Dr. Anthony Wynshaw-Boris, chair of the Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, discussed how cell lines were cultivated as tools in the past for scientists to use to grow cell cultures to study diseases or develop vaccines. However, there wasn’t as much debate about the development of these tools in the past as there is now. 

“These are scientific tools that we use. The political and social aspects... are arising today because of our polarization,” Wynshaw-Boris said. 

The panel had an in-depth conversation regarding the ethics of the use of scientific tools such as stem cell lines derived from fetal tissue, embryonic cells, abortion-derived cell lines and cells acquired without consent. 

Dr. Eric Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, argued that the investment that has been made in these cell lines to calibrate them for use in biomedical research cannot be ignored.

“Should there be a halt on the use of that mature tool because of its origins that were created in a time when there was a different view?” Green asked. 

Antonio Regalado, senior editor for biomedicine at MIT Technology Review who writes about the impact of technology on medicine and biomedical research, responded to Green’s query. 

Regalado brought up the fact that makeup companies have been facing a lot of backlash recently for testing their products on animals. Regalado pointed out that makeup companies could then use a similar argument by saying that since they have already invested money in animal testing procedures, they should not have to find new, less harmful methods of testing. 

“I don't know that we should rule out the possibility of alternatives if the scientific community decides to put their minds to it. Perhaps an equivalent cell line could be developed,” Regalado said. 

Diane Hoffman, director of the Law and Health Care Program at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, described various perspectives in debate over the ethical concerns of stem cell research.

The challenge, according to Hoffman, is striking a balance between implementing a blanket policy through the government and informing consumers to allow them to make ethical decisions. 

“Industry wanting innovation, and government wanting safety and efficacy, and consumers wanting access. Those three things are... how we consider these ethical issues,” Hoffmann said. 

The conversation then shifted to eugenics, the practice of editing human DNA to achieve specific, desirable characteristics, such as eliminating diseases, changing eye color or editing IQ.

Green described an initiative funded by the Human Genome Project, the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications Research Program (ELSI), which focuses on the ethical, legal and social implications of biomedical research.

“We can meld together what is scientifically possible to what is the body of evidence of what has come out when we have looked at these ELSI issues and then have conversations... and try to come to consensus on what the guardrails should look like,” Green said. 

Hoffmann echoed Green, describing the need of the scientific community to also consider allocation of these resources. 

“We’ve got a ways to go in terms of thinking about... how we can be more just in our allocation of medical resources and the benefits of the research we’re doing,” Hoffmann said.

She brought up the idea of giving priority in receiving benefits to vulnerable populations that have been previously harmed by the health-care system. 

Wynshaw-Boris added that each study that is conducted needs to address the ELSI considerations mentioned by Green. 

“Studies have to be done... in partnership with diverse populations, and we have to be committed to that,” Wynshaw-Boris said. “We have to make progress on it all the time, and that's what we have to be committed to.”

The discussion concluded with a consensus among the panelists that the scientific community needs to address social and health inequities as advancements in genetics and genomic techniques continue to occur.

“We have to bring more trust to science than exists now,” Green said.

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