Michael Kalichman, director of the Research Ethics Program at UC San Diego, spoke this morning about hESC ethics. His was a probing Q&A format as he tried to get the scientists to think through the pertinent issues. They didn’t say much, but I believe his questions got them thinking. The discussion wasn’t really an “Is hESC research right or wrong?” discussion, but one about reasoning out inconsistencies in logic. It was a fair discussion, except that he said the opposition equates leftover IVF embryos with live children. I’m not sure that’s accurate. Of more concern to me than the fate of a finite number of leftover IVF embryos is who we become as a society if we don’t do the hard work of thoroughly hashing out the ethics. This is where religious voices are vital to the discussion. Unlike Sidney Golub who said he doesn’t like slippery slope arguments, Kalichman gave weight to concerns about where hESC research might lead. I think it is fair to say that proponents invoke their own brand of slippery slopism when they resist all constraints, regulations and/or oversight.
I won’t say much more about Kalichman’s lecture here, except that the ethics discussion once again appears to have progressed in both tone and content. Early in the talk, he warned that what happened in Korea could happen here and he advised the budding hESC researchers to abide by whatever rules govern their work.
Three important points:
- In light of advances with iPSCs (induced pluripotent [adult] stem cells), he thinks it is not unreasonable for ethics committees to require that research proposals include a defense of the use of hESCs over iPSCs.
- It is too early to conclude that hESCs and iPSCs will be therapeutically interchangable; therefore all types of stem cell research should proceed.
- As a proponent of hESC research, he advised students to treat human embryos with respect because they are more than ordinary cells.
A discussion comparing the ethical constraints on hESC researchers to those on journalists ensued. It was kind of funny, as I realized that journalists may be less popular than hESC researchers. Many hESC researchers are interested in curing disease after all … as are many journalists, only our work is focused on curing (or, at least exposing for treatment) societal ills rather than physical ones.
Kalichman mentioned something about journalists not identifying themselves appropriately. This got me thinking more about blogging conferences. I don’t believe it is my responsibility to tell each lecturer at a public or semi-public event that I will be blogging their session from a particular point of view. They should assume that a lecture (especially one sponsored by the National Institutes of Health) delivered to an undefined audience is fair game to be reported on. As a courtesy, a conference host might wish to alert speakers to the presence of media, but I don’t believe it is required of them either. Additionally, in this situation, I introduced myself to the students as a journalist on day one. I have not named any of them, and will not in this or any other venue without their permission. If I request any formal interviews, only then will I discuss with sources the parameters and possible consequences of an interview.
Two side notes:
- This morning, I also attended a lecture on Aneuploidies (chromosomal abnormalities) in hESC culture. The significant development from 3 years ago is that there appear to be two types of aneuploidy: one potentially carcinogenic and one that may be a normal and harmless feature of stem cell culture.
- Speaking of new developments, I heard on Friday that Hans Keirstead’s technique for culturing highly undifferentiated oligodendrocytes has been replicated. I’ll have to check into it.