How to Farm Stem Cells Without Losing Your Soul

A solution to the stem cell dilemma that even the Vatican can love

| June 16, 2005

When William Hurlbut pitched his stem-cell compromise to Vatican types at a Rome conference he got promising reviews from some of stem-cell science's most stalwart foes.

Hurlbut's idea hinges on what's called a teratoma, 'a naturally occurring tumor that grows from an egg or sperm cell' and is replete with teeth, hair, skin, other Frankenstein-like features and stem cells, Clive Thompson reports in Wired. Hurlbut proposes creating something like a teratoma through genetic manipulation. It's a kind of genetic/moral loophole: Since the entity would never actually become a human, there's no moral dilemma for religious folk, like Hurlbut, in destroying them.

But the idea has tripped up his fellow members on the President's Council on Bioethics. 'There is something morally creepy about genetically engineering a mutant embryo-like being,' Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor of government, told Hurlbut at a council meeting in March.

The response has been even worse from scientists. There are those wary of the actual science; they say it would be difficult to replicate the success of the mouse trials upon which Hurlbut's proposal is based, and even if they could, the stem cells harvested from the mutant entities would have to be fixed before being used to treat people. And then there are the scientists who see Hurlbut's idea as a political problem -- an option the religious right could seize upon to block other research paths.

It's this resistance that's come as a surprise to Hurlbut. 'He seems genuinely stunned to discover that his real fight isn't with either the Vatican or even the President's Council,' Thompson writes. 'Ironically, his biggest opponents are those he says he's trying to help: embryonic stem cell researchers.'
-- Hannah Lobel

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