Ethics and Embryonic Stem Cell Research
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Ethical controversy in stem cell research arises because current methods to produce embryonic stem cell lines require the destruction of living human embryos. For this reason, there is increasing interest in developing alternative, non-embryonic sources of pluripotent stem cells. This effort is especially important in the US due to the prevailing policy against federal funding of embryo-destructive research.
Altered nuclear transfer (ANT) is one of several potential methods to develop alternative sources of pluripotent stem cells. This approach employs the technique of somatic cell nuclear transfer, but the somatic cell nucleus or egg cytoplasm (or both) are first altered before the somatic cell nucleus is transferred into the oocyte. This alteration precludes the coordinated organization and developmental potential that is necessary for the resulting biological entity to be an embryo, but it still allows the entity to generate pluripotent stem cells.
Proof-of-principle for one variant of ANT has been established in mice by silencing the functional expression of the gene Cdx2 in the somatic cell nucleus prior to its transfer into an enucleated egg. From the resulting non-embryonic laboratory construct, fully functional pluripotent stem cells were procured. Other more recent studies have suggested the possibility of achieving the same results by preemptively silencing maternally derived Cdx2 messenger RNA in the egg before the act of nuclear transfer. The procedure would produce the equivalent of a tissue culture of pluripotent stem cells.
In contrast to the use of embryos ‘left over’ from clinical in vitro fertilization, ANT could produce pluripotent stem cell lines with an unlimited range of specifically selected and controlled genotypes. Such flexibility would greatly facilitate the study of disease, drug development, and toxicology testing, and may allow the production of therapeutically useful pluripotent stem cells that are immune-compatible. If developed to the point of scientific reliability, ANT would be a valuable research tool for the study of other aspects of cell development and differentiation, including gene expression patterns, imprinting, and cell-cell signaling. ANT would also help to clarify definitions and boundaries that distinguish true organisms from ‘biological artifacts’ and, thereby, provide moral precedent to guide future progress in developmental biology.
KeywordsPluripotent Stem Cell Human Embryo Stem Cell Research Nuclear Transfer Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer
No sources of funding were used to assist in the preparation of this article. The author has no conflicts of interest that are directly relevant to the content of this article.
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