Monday, May 02, 2005

Altered Nuclear Transfer

The latest issue of Communio (Winter 2004) has a number of excellent articles, well worth reading. In this post, though, I want to discuss three in particular, all of them regarding altered nuclear transfer.

Altered nuclear transfer (hereafter, ANT) is a proposed offered by Stanford prof William Hurlbut as a way to break the embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) impasse. The problem with ESCR is, of course, that research with great potential with regard to various diseases involves the killing of human beings at the embryonic stage. Hurlbut seeks to do an end run around the impasse by using genetic engineering to create entities with embryonic stem cells which are not actually human embryos. The idea is to "turn off" certain genes (prior to the completion of ANT), as a result of which there would be only brief development, sufficient only for ESC's to form. If such a proposal could work, it would avoid the problems of ESCR (killing people) while being able to move forward with this research. Needless to say, such a solution is very promising.

However... some scholars have raised serious issues with ANT, among them the authors of the three articles in this quarter's Communio: David L. Schindler, Roberto Colombo, and Adrian J. Walker. I'll summarize each below.

In his piece, Schindler takes his characteristic long-view approach, questioning not so much the immediate questions involved with ANT, but rather the broader & deeper metaphysical and ontological premises upon which ANT is dependent. Briefly, Schindler argues that ANT share similar ontological premises with ESCR, specifically a mechanistic metaphysics which treats organisms as machines and asserts only external causes, neglecting (if not denying) "inner," teleological causes. At the heart of this metaphysics is an understanding of nature as merely neutral, i.e. empty of any moral status in and of itself, rather than nature as already "containing" a positive moral & metaphysical status (which corresponds with what God said at the end of each day in the first creation story: "it is good").

Colombo's article is a few short notes on the biological & moral questions involved directly with ANT. The gist of this article is to question Hurlbut's argument that the entity created by ANT is not actually an embryo.

A similar argument is made by Walker, in which he extensively argues that the entity created by ANT is in fact a human embryo, albeit one with severe genetic defects. In brief, Walker's argument is that the mere fact that the entity does not develop extensively before it begins to dis-integrate, this in and of itself does not demonstrate that the entity is not an embryonic human being. The rough analogy that came to mind is this: what if scientists "turned off" the genes which result in the development of arms... would there be no human being simply because one phase of development was prevented beforehand? No. If Walker's analysis is correct, something similar obtains with ANT: merely prohibiting more than elementary development does not mean that the entity in question is not in fact a human being.

It seems to me that all of these arguments need to be weighed and considered by those examining ANT as a possible alternative to ESCR, to ensure that ANT is not in fact ESCR in a different form.

Parenthetically, the latest issue of The National Catohlic Bioethics Quarterly (Spring 2005) discusses this issue in its opening colloquy; a number of scholars offer their perspectives on ANT, and Hurlbut himself responds. However, his response does not seem to address the sorts of criticisms found in the articles considered here, or at least does not do so in great depth. It should be noted, BTW, that Hurlbut is motivated by a desire to avoid killing people in ESCR; hence his proposal. He's on our side... it just seems that his proposal is not what he thinks it is.

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