Tag Archives: stem cells cloning

Defining an Organism

zygote.pngIn a previous discussion on embryonic stem cells, dlw asserted the following definition of an organism from Merriam Webster and the subsequent assertion:

1 : a complex structure of interdependent and subordinate elements whose relations and properties are largely determined by their function in the whole
2 : an individual constituted to carry on the activities of life by means of organs separate in function but mutually dependent : a living being

"Thus, because it is not until the fifth week that we see organogenesis begin, according to scientific research, we cannot technically call the newlyformed zygote an organism, unless you want to use a nonscientific standard def'n of organism."

The Merriam Webster definition looks acceptable, but dlw misreads it. Two definitions are proposed, but they are not both necessary for an organism. A bacterium has no organs, but is composed of plasmids, ribosomes and sundry superstructures that are guided by whole. If a bacterium, the smallest living thing, is not an organism, I'm at a loss as to what is. The same can be said for an unicellular entity, like a zygote, that was not originally part of some tissue.

A skin cell or brain cell is composed of many parts whose functions are dictated by the whole cell (at least in part) as well, but they are not organisms. A skin or brain cell has features that make very little sense if the cell is taken on its own. What good is a synapse or a dendrite on a neuron if it's not plugged into a network, for instance? If you isolate a beta cell from a Isle of Langerhan in the pancreas–whooppee–it can make insulin, but what good is that without downstream cells to receive the message?

One may counter: fine, but how long would a zygote last without the womb, or an embryo without a placental life-support system? These are reasonable counterexamples, though I do not think they are on the same plane as an isolated brain or pancreatic cell like I mentioned above.

An organism may be dependent on another organism for sustenance but may still be distinct–for instance, an E. coli bacterium need human beings, specifically our large bowel, but we can distinguish between our two respective species. A newborn human may be out of the womb, but is quite dependent on other humans for support; yet we'd still mark the newborn as being a distinctive organism.

A person may be hooked up to life-supports machines–and in the future, these machines may even be organic or alive themselves–yet I think the physicians and the patient would have little trouble distinguishing between the two on a conceptual level, even though (depending on the nature of the device(s)), the two may become rather entwined.

One may argue that a hospitalized person lived on his own before extrinsic machinery came to his aid. True, but a fertilized zygote lives on his or her own before implanting in the uterine wall and cooperating with the maternal tissues to form the placenta. There is a distinction between the two. Thus a zygote may be defined as an organism. The link I provided implicitly assumes that the organism starts as a zygote. I'd be very curious to see a serious (i.e., peer-reviewed) biological article try to overthrow that, if a reader could provide one.

The link above is to a free online version of the Molecular Biology of the Cell, which is the standard text on cell biology, and which I personally recommend as an excellent text. The questions at the end of every chapter focus not just on memorization (which is necessary), but also on problem solving skills, and having you think through how experiments (including some very important historical ones) should be designed.

Addendum 12/10/05: Wesley J. Smith points to an interview about "the fact that so many scientists feel that if they come out against cloning they will be branded anti-science and face professional repercussions". It includes a definition of "organism".

Senator Specter’s Snake Oil

Funky recently sent an email to Senater Arlen Specter regarding stem cells and cloning. He got the following response, which he forwarded to me. I was more than happy to fisk it for him. Senator Specter is a noted proponent of science and embryonic stem cell research in particular. As his letter to Funky indicates below, he should spend less time advocating and more time with a undergraduate-biology text, as he makes some very basic mistakes in describing what cloning is and is not. Presumably he sent similar letter to other constituents, and so fisking this mess of half-truths is even more important.

"Cloning and stem cell research have been topics of much debate over the past several months. Unfortunately, a key fact that sometimes gets lost in the rhetoric is that there are really two types of cloning: therapeutic cloning, which is not really cloning at all, and reproductive cloning."

Okay, therapeutic cloning is not really cloning, we’re going to have some words about that, but let’s see how this is developed first.

"I believe that human reproductive cloning is unethical, irresponsible, and dangerous. However, the other technique, which has been misnamed therapeutic cloning, is not what most Americans think of when they hear the word cloning. The entire procedure takes place in a petri dish, not in a person. Also, a sperm never fertilizes the egg. Most importantly, and unlike reproductive cloning, a baby is never born."

Specter considers birth and being fertilized by a sperm to be crucial factors in why therapeutic cloning is not morally wrong, which is curious to say the least.

First off, Specter makes an implicit error in describing cloning. He states that since reproductive cloning does not involve fertilization with sperm, it is not really cloning. WRONG. The whole idea with cloning is that you do not combine genes from different organisms (i.e., a male and a female) but take them from ONE organism. NEITHER reproductive nor therapeutic cloning use sperm, since that contradicts what a clone is supposed to be. For a supposed advocate of science research, this sort of mistake or ambiguity (Maybe he was trying to make some sort of different point? Maybe it was the intern’s fault?) is a disgrace.

Now let’s get into some other issues. At the end of the paragraph, we read that therapeutic cloning is okay because "a baby is never born". Well, once again, we hit the issue of abortion and when personhood begins.

We also see that because a child is not born, it is okay. Does this mean that we must spend some time in a uterus to have our humanity conferred upon us? What is the substance in the uterus or placenta that does that?

One of my pet peeves is that the "life begins at conception" position is called religious, whereas hand-waving type arguments such as "personhood begins at birth" are not, even though the latter cannot point to any significant, intrinsic change to organism that would make a believable difference in the organism’s moral status, whereas the conception benchmark can point to the establishment of an organism’s identity as a separate organism with its own genome.

Such arbitrariness finds its apotheosis in utilitarianism, where there is no real inherent personhood, just a relative weighing of everyone’s good. If more benefit from your demise than you would stand to gain from remaining alive, then you lose. Good night.

"On April 21, 2005, I, with Senators Dianne Feinstein, Orrin Hatch, Tom Harkin and Edward Kennedy introduced S. 876, the "Human Cloning Ban and Stem Cell Research Protection Act of 2005," which prohibits human cloning while preserving important areas of medical research. My bill would prohibit human reproductive cloning by imposing a criminal penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a civil penalty of at least $ 1 million dollars. "

So if we bring a cloned human embryo to term, we’re criminals, but if we kill it early, we can do important research and get Mr. Specter’s applause.

Ya know, people would sometimes attack pro-lifers for going on about "slippery slopes", but read this paragraph of Specter’s closely: it is no longer a matter of "choice" with what we do with our embryos, since now in the case of cloned embryos, Messrs. Specter and Kennedy want to make it mandatory for us to kill cloned embryos, because if we brought them to term, we’d face severe federal penalties. Where is the abortion rhetoric taking us now that our abilities to manipulate organisms are far more varied and powerful than in 1973, when the Supreme Court declared it open season on prenatal human life with Roe v. Wade?

Perhaps within a few decades, we will be able raise a human being from a fertilized egg to a full-term infant without the use of a uterus. Such a child would not be born, and so according to Specter’s letter, perhaps that child would not be a person. Can we do what we want with such children if they are vat-grown, so to speak, and not raised in utero?

"Over the past four years as both Ranking Member, and now Chairman, of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, I have convened and participated in 15 hearings at which scientists, patients, and ethicists have described the promise of stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, which is also known as nuclear transplantation. Most scientists strongly believe that this research has the potential to cure many of the most devastating diseases and maladies afflicting Americans today, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, severe burns, paralysis and many more. In testimony before my Subcommittee, scientists have estimated that over 100 million Americans are afflicted with diseases that may be treated or cured using what our scientists are learning from stem cell and nuclear transplantation research."

Education, I have convened and participated in 15 hearings at which scientists, patients, and ethicists have described the promise of stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, which is also known as nuclear transplantation. Most scientists strongly believe that this research has the potential to cure many of the most devastating diseases and maladies afflicting Americans today, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, severe burns, paralysis and many more. In testimony before my Subcommittee, scientists have estimated that over 100 million Americans are afflicted with diseases that may be treated or cured using what our scientists are learning from stem cell and nuclear transplantation research.

Okay, check out Do No Harm and see that adult stem cells are delivering the goods on many of those diseases in the here and now. Adult stem cells are technically simpler to harvest and manipulate–recall the KISS principle of engineering: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Alzheimer’s is a red herring for embryonic researchers: replacing the brain tissue will not necessarily replace the personality who originally got the dementia. Besides, if you do not focus on the amyloid plaque production that causes Alzheimer’s in the first place, trying to make new neurons and glial cells doesn’t make much sense.

With their ability to replace damaged cells and tissue, stem cells appear to be a veritable fountain of youth.

Ah, and folks like Specter think that pro-lifers are manipulative by playing on people’s guilt for killing fetuses, yet these guys make promises about fountains of youth when even big embryonic researchers, like the cloning researcher in South Korea, admit that any sort of human treatment may be a decade or more past the horizon.

In the meantime we are getting many adult stem cell treatments either in the market now, or in the FDA pipeline. How long before embryonic stuff even gets to the beginning of the FDA’s arduous testing?

For a quick fisking of embryonic research rhetoric, check out this First Things article.

"In their embryonic stage, stem cells show great promise for a wide range of therapeutic use, as they are capable of giving rise to any cell type in the body. If a person’s neurons have been damaged by Parkinson’s disease, the stem cells can be turned into brain cells and used to replace the patient’s damaged cells. If a patient has suffered heart damage, stem cells can be turned into heart cells and replace the patient’s damaged cells with new, healthy heart cells."

Again, already being done with adult stem cells, and without the risk of rejection from using foreign embryonic stem cells, or the baroque process of cloning one’s own embryos to create genetically identical stem cells. See my point about KISS above.

"Nuclear transplantation is one of the most promising techniques using stem cells. This technique combines a donated, unfertilized egg with the nucleus of a body cell from a patient. This creates an embryo that is genetically identical to the patient. Next, the cells divide and form a hollow ball of about 100 cells from which stem cells can be derived. These stem cells can then be turned into whatever type of cells the patient needs to repair damage done by injury or disease. Therapeutic cloning is not what most Americans think of when they hear the word cloning. Most importantly, and unlike reproductive cloning, a cloned baby is never born."

Which begs the question of abortion and personhood. The paragraph does describe the process of cloning and killing very well in a technical sense, but it does not solve any moral debates.

"This promise of this research is so great that 40 Nobel prize winners, over 100 patient advocacy groups, actors Michael J. Fox, Christopher Reeve, Kevin Kline, and former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter have written to Congress and the President pleading with us to ban reproductive cloning but allow nuclear transplantation and stem cell research to go forward. The legislation that I have introduced does exactly this. Importantly, my bill would allow medical research into nuclear transplantation, thereby allowing promising research towards cures for a vast array of disease to proceed. In addition, my bill would apply strict Federal ethical requirements to all nuclear transplantation research, which includes informed consent, an ethics review board, and protections for the safety and privacy of research participants."

Ah, so here were are trying to bank on some sort of inherent moral authority that Nobel prize-winners, actors, and politicians possess.

So if a scientist says that something is good, it must be so? History makes me skeptical, to say the least. Many scientists once advocated eugenics–the USA had a thriving eugenics movement that the Nazis used at a template for their own work, and eugenics was quite trendy until WWII and news of the Holocaust snapped people out of it. Where was the morality in that? What makes scientists more inherently ethical than others?

In short, using scientists as a sort of secular priesthood, or permitting any elite to define its own values and compel the public as a whole to follow these values without a broader dialogue and consensus is incompatible with a Republic. I wish that a Senator of all people could do better!

And why should I give a rat’s tail what a Hollwood actor thinks? Many Hollwood actors think that bad thoughts were implanted in us by an evil alien named Xenu, a la Scientology. At least Nobel prize-winners have actually done some real thinking about something at some point in their lives. They’re a less laughable authority than Hollywood.

I’ll do y’all a favor and not get started on Clinton. Former President Ford, I can understand, since from what I’ve heard he may be even clumsier than me, and no doubt wants a reliable supply of spare parts. Perhaps he could be turned around with some good demonstrations of existing non-embryonic technologies. 🙂

"Currently, it is unclear whether either bill has the votes needed to pass the Senate. I am hopeful, however, that Congress will be able to move ahead in banning reproductive cloning, while simultaneously establishing a regulatory group to oversee how the science of nuclear transplantation helps discover life sustaining cures. While some people consider research on human embryos inherently unethical, I believe that such objections might be outweighed if the research on nuclear transplantation was proven to be beneficial for the purposes of saving the lives of many Americans."

The same has been said for other controversial research before, and I feel ill that a Jewish person, of all ethnic minorities, can say this without a second thought. How quickly we forget!

Medical atrocities happen within the US; many people know about how poor rural blacks were used as guinea pigs in the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, but even more recently in the 1960s, a New York City facility (Willowbrook State School) deliberately infected mentally retarded patients with hepatatis as a research experiment.

But hey, syphilis and hepatitis are serious public health risks, so while you and I consider it unethical, it is in the public good, right? And it’s only retarded people and poor blacks, right? What were they going to do anyway?

"Again, thank you for bringing your views to my attention. Be assured that I will remain attentive to your concerns as the Congress grapples with this difficult, yet vitally important issue affecting so many lives. If you have any further questions on this issue or any related matter, please do not hesitate to contact me or visit my website, at http://specter.senate.gov. "

Oh, you’ll be hearing from us again, Mr. Senator…. Mwah ha ha ha! 😉


Here’s a news article relevant to this topic:

"Option to stem cells found: Pitt experts say placental cells offer palatable alternative"

"University of Pittsburgh researchers have discovered that one type of cell in the human placenta has characteristics that are strikingly similar to embryonic stem cells in their ability to regenerate a wide variety of tissues."

An Exchange on Cloning

[For the uninitiated: Theomorph is an atheist lexivore and Jerry Nora is a Catholic MD/PhD student with penchant for bioethics. – Funky]

A week ago, Theomorph posted some thoughts about cloning on his blog. Below I have the questions that he poses in bold and his own answers in italic, and my own counterpoints are in plain text.

Tuck in, and happy debating!

Continue reading

Stem Cell Research: Myths and Realities

This post is a supplement to Funky’s call for clarity in the stem cell
. It was originally published in The Catholic Anchor, a student-run newspaper/magazine sponsored by the Ryan Catholic Newman Center.

Over the past five years, the embryonic stem cell debate has haunted
politicians and voters alike, and it has not grown any easier to cut
through the rhetoric coming from the politicians and activists. Last
year, President Bush said that federal spending on embryonic stem cells
should be limited. On the other side, Kerry and Edwards promised
extensive support on embryonic research, promising cures to a host of

Now that the hype has died down for a little while, I found two articles
that do a good job of representing where stem cell research stands On
one hand, there is an article (www.indystar.com, January 16,
2005) about a paraplegic woman in Michigan is learning how to walk again
thanks to cell treatment. While we could not see Christopher Reeve walk
again, at least such a cure is drawing closer for the many other
paralysis victims in the United States

On the other hand, we learned (via www.wired.com, January 31, 2005, and www.halifaxlive.com, January 30,
2005) that embryonic stem cells have been converted to motor neurons,
and that researchers are planning on transplanting these cells into a
lab animal. Presumably all their work has been in vitro so far,
with isolated cells in a culture dish and not inside a living organism.

We have two articles: In one case, we made human embryonic stem cells
become human nerve cells; in the other case, a woman is learning how to
walk While halifaxlive.com is a small news service like indystar.com,
Wired is an influential technology magazine. Should
it not be a bigger deal that a human being is being at least partially
cured of paralysis?

Big Media is often suspiciously quiet about adult stem cell
successes in human, while an embryonic stem cell experiment performed on
animals may get prime coverage at the New York Times.

I have been in stem cell-related activism since 1999, when the NIH under
the Clinton administration opened the issue of embryonic stem cell
research (ESCR) to public opinion. The myths I saw blinding people about
the real issues with stem cell research back then are still as strong as
ever now. I hope, Gentle Reader, that this article may set the record
straight on some key issues.

Myth One: ESCR is the only form of stem cell research, and if you
oppose ESCR, you therefore oppose all stem cell research.

Wrong Embryonic stem cells are but one kind of stem cell
Human embryonic stem cells are derived from 4 to 5 day-old embryos This
is before cells differentiate into the many tissues and organs making up
a more mature human. Thus, those cells have the potential to grow into
many different tissue types, making them potentially very useful as a
flexible tool to rebuild lost or damaged tissue. They are called
pluripotent stem cells for this reason, since they have the power or
potential to develop into many (plures)
types of cells.

However, many tissues in a mature human have another class of stem
cell called multipotent stem cells. As I will discuss later, these cells
have great promise in research. But the take-home message for this myth
is that one may oppose embryonic research and still support stem cell
research. Opposing ESCR does not make you some anti-science Luddite. It
just means that you think that it violates medical and scientific ethics.

Myth Two: Even though we have adult multipotent stem
cells, they may not be able to do everything that embryonic stem cells
can. Therefore, we still need ESCR.

Multipotent adult stem cells are more specialized than
embryonic stem cells, but recent studies suggest that they can do
whatever we want. You may find these stem cells in bone marrow, skin,
fat (no shortage of that!), and even in the brain, which people had
previously assumed had no ability to regenerate. Scientists believed
that these stem cells could only differentiate into whatever tissue they
were found in. A bone marrow stem cell could produce a white blood cell,
for instance, but not a neuron. Recent studies have shown that
multipotent stem cells can be “coaxed” into assuming many different
studies. One exciting study on rats used bone marrow-derived stem cells
to repair heart tissue damaged by a heart attack, for instance. On
February 2, 2005, The Washington Post reported a new type of adult stem
cell in the bone marrow that may be as versatile as embryonic stem

However, even if there are some inherent limitations on just how far
you can get a multipotent stem cell to change, because they appear in so
many tissues in the body, you can probably find a stem cells that come
from whatever organ or tissue that you are trying to treat.

The aforementioned Wired article on stem cells even mentioned that
getting embryonic cells to assume a particular identity is difficult,
which is the chief reason why the experiment creating nerve cells is
getting attention. The vaunted flexibility of pluripotent stem cells can
therefore also be curse: If you cannot get the cells to reliably assume
a particular identity for a particular disease, they are useless, or
even harmful, to a patient.

Myth Three: Embryonic stem cell therapies are around the

ESCR advocates have done much to manipulate feelings: They imply
that embryonic stem cells are the only answer (see Myth One) and then
bring out Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeve (may he rest in peace)
and made people feel that by opposing embryonic research, they were
denying Fox and Reeve a chance at life because (they imply) big
discoveries are just around the corner.

The fact is that embryonic stem cells have not had a single
successful clinical trial in humans. The press loves to play up whenever
there is a successful ESCR experiment on rats or monkeys, but adult stem
cells have already cured 56 human illnesses. That�s right;
we treated real patients with adult stem cells and cured them outright
or greatly alleviated the symptoms. These are not just animal
experiments and speculation. Adult stem cells are delivering the goods,
while the ESCR activists just deliver promises.

Check out Do No Harm�s website at www.stemcellresearch.org for
their “scoreboard” on embryonic versus adult stem cell cures, and links
to articles on some of these advances.

Myth Four: People oppose embryonic research solely on
religious grounds.

Presumably in a pluralist society, we should avoid theological
arguments that may leave out people of different faiths.

This makes some sense, though I must say that nobody seems to have a
problem with the extensive religious involvement with civil rights from
the Reverend Martin Luther King on to the social justice crusaders of
today. However, I should point out prominent pro-lifer Nat Hentoff. Mr.
Hentoff is an atheist liberal and 1st Amendment champion who
writes for the ultra-liberal Village Voice. Hardly a
Bible-thumper! Yet he courageously argues for the dignity of human life
from conception till natural death.

The surprising fact is that the general pro-life position
about personhood starting at conception is at least as scientifically
solid as other theories. Pro-lifers generally consider personhood to
begin with conception, when a new, genetically unique organism is
created. Pro-choice positions generally define personhood when some part
of development happens, such as organ differentiation or nervous system
development. They are not always very clear about why these
developmental milestones should matter, about why a switch is flipped
when the neural tube closes and a non-person becomes a person. For many
pro-choicers, personhood is up for negotiation, so to speak, and if the
parents do not want the fetus�or even a newborn�then that newborn�s
rights are null and void. This is the position of Princeton�s Peter
Singer, for instance, who supports infanticide on babies as old as 28

Of course, if personhood is up for negotiation, could not any
minority be denied humanity/personhood when the rest of the population
decides to “vote them off the island”? We have had enough cases of
genocide in the past century to last us for the rest of human history,
thank you! We do not need to sacrifice human lives or dignity for vague,
long-term promises of a medical revolution.

The stem cell revolution is already here in the form of adult stem
cell technology, and there are plenty of adult stem cells for the taking
in our own bodies.