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WHITE PAPER: Alternative Sources of Pluripotent Stem CellS

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The President's Council on Bioethics
Washington, D.C.
May 2005



Alternative Sources of Human Pluripotent Stem Cells is a White Paper of the President's Council on Bioethics, which was created by President George W. Bush on November 28, 2001, by means of Executive Order 13237.

The Council's purpose is to advise the President on bioethical issues related to advances in biomedical science and technology. In connection with its advisory role, the mission of the Council includes the following functions:

  • To undertake fundamental inquiry into the human and moral significance of developments in biomedical and behavioral science and technology.
  • To explore specific ethical and policy questions related to these developments.
  • To provide a forum for a national discussion of bioethical issues.
  • To facilitate a greater understanding of bioethical issues.

The President left the Council free to establish its own priorities among the many issues encompassed within its charter and to determine its own modes of proceeding.

Stem cell research has been of interest to, and associated in the public mind with, this Council since its creation. Taking up the charge given to us by President Bush in his August 9, 2001, speech on stem cell research, the Council has from its beginnings been monitoring developments in this fast-paced and exciting field of research. In January 2004, the Council published a report, Monitoring Stem Cell Research, which provided an overview of the law, ethics, and science of stem cell research. That report was intended to serve as a source of clear, intelligible, and useful information for both policymakers and the general public regarding the current state of this important research and of the debates that surround it.

Much of the ethical controversy over stem cells derives from the fact that, until now, the only way to obtain human pluripotent stem cell lines has been to derive them from living human embryos by a process that necessarily destroys the embryos. If a way could be found to derive such stem cell lines without creating and destroying human embryos, a good deal of that ethical controversy would subside.

The present White Paper may be regarded as a new contribution to the stem cell discussions. It reports on some recent developments that deserve public notice because of their potential for finding a morally uncontroversial means of obtaining pluripotent human stem cells. Over the past six months, the Council has been looking into specific scientific proposals for obtaining pluripotent, genetically stable, and long-lived human stem cells by methods that would not involve destroying or endangering human embryos. In December 2004, the Council heard presentations of two such proposals, one by Drs. Donald Landry and Howard Zucker of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and the other by Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford University (and a member of this Council). In March 2005, the Council discussed a staff working paper in which these two proposals, as well as two others, were explained and analyzed.

That staff working paper, extensively revised and improved in light of Council discussions and member comments, is what the Council is now issuing as a White Paper, Alternative Sources of Human Pluripotent Stem Cells. In its present form, the White Paper has also benefited from expert review by three prominent scientists (Andrew Fire of the Stanford University School of Medicine, Markus Grompe of the Oregon Health & Science University, and Janet Rossant of the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute in Toronto, Ontario), as well as consultation with scientists at the National Institutes of Health.

The White Paper introduces the four proposals and begins an analysis of their strengths and weaknesses, ethical, scientific, and practical. Because the scientific and practical merits of these proposals are in large part empirical matters, not settled in advance by mere speculation, we give special weight to the ethical analysis. We also explore, in a preliminary way, whether these alternative avenues of deriving and using pluripotent stem cells are likely to be embraced by scientists or to become eligible for federal funding.

It remains to be seen whether any of these proposals will succeed scientifically, and more discussion is surely required on some of the ethical issues we have identified. Nevertheless, having conducted this "preliminary hearing," we believe that several of these possibilities have sufficient merit to commend them now to wider public attention and further scientific investigation. People of all moral and political persuasions should be pleased to learn that scientists and others are creatively seeking morally unproblematic and uncontroversial ways to advance this promising area of scientific research.

In creating this Council, President Bush expressed his desire to see us

consider all of the medical and ethical ramifications of biomedical innovation. . . . This council will keep us apprised of new developments and give our nation a forum to continue to discuss and evaluate these important issues. As we go forward, I hope we will always be guided by both intellect and heart, by both our capabilities and our conscience.

It has been our goal in the present White Paper, as in all of our work, to live up to these high hopes and noble aspirations.

                                 Leon R. Kass, M.D.



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