The time for ethical reflection is before experimentation begins, especially in the case of potential new methods for creating human embryos for research, according to bioethicists from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center and the Mayo Clinic in the spring issue of Ethics & Medicine.
"Before asking, 'Can we do it?' scientists should ask, 'Should we do it?'" said Nancy L. Jones, Ph.D., a cell biologist at Wake Forest Baptist.
Public controversy over research on human embryos has slowed stem cell research and prompted scientists to search for alternative ways to create embryos for research. They are using techniques such as cloning and parthenogenesis, which uses genetic material from a single parent.
Some scientists argue that these artificially created embryos provide a new source for human embryonic research and should be exempt from ethical restraints placed on human embryos. The methods being studied cannot currently create embryos that can become viable beings.
Jones and William P. Cheshire Jr., M.D., from the Mayo Clinic, on the other hand, contend that these embryos aren't a technologic fix. Instead, they say, novel methods of creating embryos have simply rephrased the questions that society must ask.
"It is essential to examine which biologic attributes should define embryonic humanity, because these entities lay now before us in the Petri dish," write the authors.
Jones and Cheshire, director of biotechnology ethics for The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and associate professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida," argue that "the decision whether to create novel variations on human life should be held to a higher precautionary standard" than deciding to destroy embryos left over from the in-vitro fertilization process.
Jones, a bioethicist, is a member of the Secretary's Advisory Committee on Human Research Protection of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"We need to do the ethical reflection before we get into the experimentation," said Jones in an interview.
For example, Jones says, the possibility of creating embryos that combine genetic material from two species could open the door to unanticipated harmful consequences as easily as beneficial outcomes. Scientists have already created pigs with human blood flowing through their bodies. And according to news reports, scientists at Stanford University are considering creating mice with human brains.
"When the barrier between humans and animals is broken down, could science unintentionally initiate the next pandemic?" said Jones. "We need to do these things in a thoughtful way, and not just consider the one experiment we're working on."
Jones also argues that a shortened gap between lab research and potential use in humans means that scientists must consider ethical issues before experimentation begins. Even though these artificially created embryos are intended only for laboratory research, there is the potential that "a zealous researcher somewhere might implant them in a mother's womb."
"There used to be a gap of 20 years or so before research in the lab could potentially be applied in humans," says Jones. "But now, there are fewer years to get to that point. When we're working on these techniques in the laboratory, society needs to be ready prior to when it hits the application stage.
"I'm for science, but I don't think we go the distance to be stewards of our scientific research. We have an obligation not to be just reactive, but to be proactive and build societal consensus for the directions we're going."
Even though the methods being studied cannot currently create embryos that can become viable beings, Jones said, it is not beyond possibility.
"Some people say this is science fiction and ethicists shouldn't dwell on it," says Jones. "But Dolly the sheep was science fiction until Dolly happened. No one thought Dolly was possible and she blew the scientific dogma."