Thursday, May 15, 2008

Scientists Genetically Alter Human Embryo

An article published by the Associated Press this past Tuesday presents news that scientists have successfully altered a human embryo. In doing so, these scientists have crossed into an area of much controversy: “designer babies” – the use of genetic engineering to ensure certain traits are either absent or present in babies.

Although this research was presented to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine last fall, this is just now drawing attention after being used in a research report by British Authorities. Due to the publication of this work, groups such as the Center for Genetics and Society, Human Genetics Alert and the Genetics and Public Policy Center have come out in criticism of the research claiming that this will lead to the ability to create “designer babies”. They argue that the creation of such “designer babies” “would create an unequal society where some people are genetically enriched while others would be considered inferior.”

The scientists who altered the embryo claim that the study was focused on studying stem cells. By inserting a marker gene into the nonviable embryo, they observed whether they could trace the genes to stem cells that could be harvested. By using an abnormal embryo, the scientists intended to determine whether the gene would be taken up by the embryo, hopefully facilitating further research into why abnormal embryos fail to develop. They claim that there was no intent on their parts to develop methods for creating “designer babies”.

Research in the field of medicine will always come with some negatives. In testing new medicines, lab animals may be required, causing complaints from animal rights groups. In further testing, individuals may become involved who have negative reactions to the tested medication, giving rise to potential lawsuits. So is the case with an attempt to study stem cells and research issues as those mentioned in this article. In some instances, it is easy to say that the outcome justifies the testing required. To get an effective treatment, it is seen as acceptable to most that the medication is tested on animals.

However, in this specific instance, the cost/benefit analysis may not be as easy to apply for many. The claims of the scientists seem meritorious: to be able to determine why some embryos develop abnormally, it is necessary to study them which may necessitate stem cell research. Even though this was the focus of this particular study, the research may eventually be used by others as protesters allege. Still, arguing that current research efforts such as this should be halted due to the possibility of future alternative uses, which many may see as controversial and/or improper, seems hardly appropriate as such reasoning could potentially be applied to a variety of other potentially life saving research projects. Instead, perhaps the focus should be on the “what is” rather than the “what could be” and allow scientists to do what they can today to establish and discover procedures that can be used in a beneficial manner by many.

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