As reported by the Hartford Business Journal, June 26, 2006.

Ethics Issues Swirl About Stem Cell Fund

State at Front of Controversial Research, Moral Questions

By Jonathan O’Connell

Genetic material within human embryos, which Connecticut scientists plan to use in research beginning next fall, has the potential to divide and develop into most any type of cell in the body.

But that material, those stem cells, also have the potential to develop into an array of difficult ethical dilemmas. And they have already begun to divide the country according to views on their moral standing.

The question of whether an embryo constitutes human life is only the beginning. For winners of Connecticut’s stem cell money – the first $20 million of which will be awarded this fall — testing stem cells’ ability to grow into fresh, disease-free organs will likely include plans to inject them into mice, rabbits and, at some point, primates and other humans.

Only one state — New Jersey —has spent public money to develop and study embryonic stem cell lines derived after August, 2001, which the federal government will not fund.

As Connecticut prepares to become the second, every step of scientists’ plans will be reviewed by a 13-member independent committee headed by Anne L. Hiskes, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut. The committee is know as ESCRO (Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight), modeled after guidelines from the National Academies.

Public transparency is the key to making sure the public is comfortable with the research it is funding, said J. Robert Galvin, commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, and chairman of the Connecticut Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee. Hiskes’ ESCRO committee, Galvin said, is central to that transparency.

“The minute that you start to do something behind a closed door or something that the public has not had a chance to see and comment on, that’s when you get into trouble,” Galvin said.

The chair position so excited Hiskes that she resigned in November from a new appointment as an associate dean — forgoing a salary increase — to take it. First on her slate of ethical questions, of course, are the rights to be afforded to human embryos, which are destroyed when stem cells are extracted.

Scientists may try to either use discarded embryos from in vitro fertilization or clone embryos to get the material, but either process will need to be justified by applying scientists, Hiskes said.

“The creation of human embryos for research is something that itself needs to be looked at very closely,” she said.

Other states have already banned it, or banned using state funds for it. Connecticut’s legislation, passed in 2005, outlaws cloning of human beings by saying that after inserting stem cells into a human egg — which allows scientists to practice manipulating them into certain cell types — the resulting embryo clone must not persist for more than about two weeks.

Moral Concerns

So the process is legal, but does the search for possible cures to diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer’s warrant it?

“You’re basically weighing respect for real, living people who are dying versus what some people think of the basic rights of embryos,” Hiskes said.

In other instances, scientists will almost certainly suggest injecting human stem cells into mice or rabbits to see if those early cells can be developed into, for example, healthy brain cells, or healthy pancreatic cells. Some scientists believe such an injection could at some point help prevent Alzheimer’s from taking over a person’s brain.

But if such an experiment works, the result is a being with a partially human brain. That leads to a waterfall of questions that no state has addressed. In that case, Hiskes asks: “Have you created a human being, in some sense? And how should that being be treated?”

To date, Connecticut’s stem cell program has avoided protests from right-to-life or animal rights advocates — but Hiskes, an Episcopalian, certainly sees the potential for them once research begins. She said she hopes to hold public forums in the future to get a better understanding of how the community feels about its scientists’ plans.

“Connecticut seems to be very quiet at this point, but we’ll have to see,” she said.