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Undifferentiated human tissue flopping down a slippery slope?
December 7, 2004 9:33 AM   Subscribe

Monster Farming: The Creepy Solution to the Stem Cell Debate. MSN Slate's William Saletan: "The good news is that we may have figured out how to solve the moral problem that's been holding up stem-cell research. The bad news is that the solution will introduce a whole new kind of horror."
posted by neckro23 (33 comments total)

 
I would like to order a werewolf, please. Preferably with black hair and green eyes-what? Oh, sorry, wrong kind of monster farming.
My bad.
posted by Sharktattoo at 9:37 AM on December 7, 2004


Yeah, this is a weird one, all right.

I'm not really all for farming embryos, but when it gets to this...:

Another slide shows an X-ray image of somebody's back. To the left of the spine, you can see a cluster of white spots that look like teeth.

...isn't it really a situation of I say tomato, you say tomahto?

I'm reminded of the resorts in the Catskills, where many Jewish senior citizens spend their summers. To avoid the sin of working on the Shabbat, the elevators of the resorts stop on every floor, so no one has to press a button, which would technically be operating machinery and "working".
posted by Specklet at 9:59 AM on December 7, 2004


From the article: Limb and organ primordia? Yep, that's what's on the screen: a ball of tissue, grown inside some poor creature, full of bits and pieces of what would have been a body.

When has medicine ever been pretty?

This is ironic: If Hurlbut's proposal breaks the stem-cell impasse, this will be the reason: People who are deeply conservative about creating and destroying human embryos can be surprisingly liberal about creating and destroying anything outside that boundary. One of the council's hawks, Diana Schaub, calls the proposal "almost too good to be true."

On the other side it seems the liberals on this council were appalled by hybrid blobs of homo sapien DNA. Strange.
posted by effwerd at 10:00 AM on December 7, 2004


now that cell won't be at God's mercy. It will be at ours.

we are God. awesome. it's poetic justice that the religious folks' strict definitions could result in something most of them would consider truly unholy, i.e. standalone human parts, or "biological artifacts."

very cool.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:01 AM on December 7, 2004


specklet - You say Another slide shows an X-ray image of somebody's back. To the left of the spine, you can see a cluster of white spots that look like teeth.

...isn't it really a situation of I say tomato, you say tomahto?

Nope. It simply gives new meaning to the term "back biter".
posted by weepingsore at 10:07 AM on December 7, 2004


*groans*
posted by Specklet at 10:13 AM on December 7, 2004


"I am Jack's colon."
posted by cows of industry at 10:14 AM on December 7, 2004


The "embryos gone wild" described in the piece sound a lot like ovarian teratoma:

Ovarian teratoma: Also called a dermoid cyst of the ovary, this is a bizarre tumor, usually benign, in the ovary that typically contains a diversity of tissues including hair, teeth, bone, thyroid, etc. A dermoid cyst develops from a totipotential germ cell (a primary oocyte) that is retained within the egg sac (ovary). Being totipotential, that cell can give rise to all orders of cells necessary to form mature tissues and often recognizable structures such as hair, bone and sebaceous (oily) material, neural tissue and teeth.
posted by mothershock at 10:26 AM on December 7, 2004


we are God. awesome

Well cool! Could you do something about all the evil in the world then? 'Cause a lot of people haven't yet figured out why that other God hasn't done so.
posted by spock at 11:04 AM on December 7, 2004


I find what the article describes to be depressing. I'm of the mindset that most doctors are out there trying to do research that is, as far as they're concerned, moral, and helpful to society in general. I know there are exceptions, but let's give the guy the benefit of the doubt, at least for what I'm going to say next.

What I think is so depressing, is that it seems he was forced to come up with this "clever idea" as a sort of answer to the ridiculous assault on otherwise sane medical research by people who neither understand the research, nor the implications of its potential success.

As a result, naturally, he came up with a technically viable, but grotesque, "solution." I'm sure he's a very clever person, and I'm sure he loves his work, so it comes as no surprise to me that he would be able to come up with this, but what's depressing is that he was apparently forced to.

If you back someone into a corner, this is what happens. If, on the other hand, you let the research progress at a natural level, with the involvement of scientists concerned about its implications, you would probably have a much less objectionable result. What seems painfully lacking from the stem cell research debate, at the national level (unsurprising, I know), is a committee to study the idea and direct its use. The committee would have to be made up of actual scientists, rather than politicians. I can dream, right?
posted by odinsdream at 11:05 AM on December 7, 2004


Welcome to the wonderful world of grey areas. There is no "solution" to this "problem" - there is merely technology, and changing morality to accomadate it.
posted by iamck at 11:11 AM on December 7, 2004


i personally would be a bit concerned about the use of stem cells harvested from a pseudo-embryo that lacked a gene necessary for nomal cellular organization and development. if these cells were used to treat a disease - as a replacement for damaged brain or liver cells, for example - are they still going to be able to form the necessary structures, or will they exhibit some deficits? i don't know that anyone's done whole-gene assays of humans to see when specifically this gene is active.

according to the NCBI Entrez gene database
, turning this gene off in the intestines is a first step towards gastric and colorectal cancer. or that turning it on results in metaplasia. conflicting reports i think. other reports say that it is necessary for expression of normal gastric cell phenotype (ie, cell is unable to be a normal gut cell without this gene. i'm not sure i want any cells without this gene in my body until we know a whole lot more...
posted by caution live frogs at 11:20 AM on December 7, 2004


(w/regard to when gene is active: i meant developmentally; is it only expressed in early embryonic organization or is it perhaps also vital for later tissue organization? i'd expect that this guy knows what he is doing, but that doesn't necessarily mean he really knows what he might be creating.)
posted by caution live frogs at 11:22 AM on December 7, 2004


Well cool! Could you do something about all the evil in the world then? 'Cause a lot of people haven't yet figured out why that other God hasn't done so.

I think it has something to do with free will.
posted by ticopelp at 11:25 AM on December 7, 2004


I think it has something to do with free will.

You think? You think?

What kind of a God are you anyway?

You're fired! Next!
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:58 AM on December 7, 2004


Free will's a total scam. The real reason for evil is: HAHAHAHAHAHA
posted by aubilenon at 12:16 PM on December 7, 2004


Could you do something about all the evil in the world then?

We have! We've created it!
posted by rushmc at 12:17 PM on December 7, 2004


i personally would be a bit concerned about the use of stem cells harvested from a pseudo-embryo that lacked a gene necessary for nomal cellular organization and development.

I'm guessing they wouldn't engineer the cells to lack this gene; rather, they'd turn off its expression temporarily at a critical time, probably with RNAi or something similar.

My favorite part of the article was this:
Paul McHugh, one of the council's moderates, finds the idea gruesome. He calls the proposed creation a "weird genetic hybrid" that is "very embryolike" and has been engineered to die. Hurlbut replies, coldly but correctly, that according to the technical definition favored by opponents of stem-cell research, the thing can't die because it was never alive.

Ha!
posted by mr_roboto at 12:17 PM on December 7, 2004


RNAi is great, but it doesn't work all the time (and sometimes the same sequence may work in one cell/organism but doesn't in another, or the RNAi sequence doesn't work at all).

Touchy stuff, biology isn't astroscience (yet?).
posted by PurplePorpoise at 12:44 PM on December 7, 2004


Hurlbut is EXACTLY why I find myself opposed to most genetic engineering. This is grotesque - the desire and the means both - and the utter lack of perspective or restraint in such a sensitive area is exactly what has me terrified.

That this could possibly be considered more "moral" is also a honkin' big flashing red neon sign that someone's gotten all Jesuitical where common sense would have sufficed nicely.
posted by Adam Greenfield at 1:08 PM on December 7, 2004


Am I the only one who can already envision the next big pseudo-science summer Blockbuster coming out of this? Little blobs of tissue that aren't supposed to organize into anything suddenly mutate into deformed little monsters with teeth and eyes in the wrong places, and begin attacking major metropolitan areas. Angelina Jolie plays the sexy but plucky scientist trying to get a handle on the situation; Will Smith is the maverick hero fighting the monsters with wicked gadgetry. Cameo appearance by Jolie's estranged father Jon Voight in the terse government cover-up committee scenes.

It might make The Core look good...
posted by junkbox at 1:41 PM on December 7, 2004


Here's a New Scientist report about 'zapping' egg cells to get them to divide without sperm. They're technically not embryos, but it's hoped that stem cells can be retrieved from them.

Speklet, here's a Wired magazine article about a guy who helps companies design kosher machinery. Seems that opening a refigerator door on the Sabbath is work unless you can keep the light from turning on.
posted by daHIFI at 2:23 PM on December 7, 2004


Not entirely off topic: did everybody read that a brain grown in a Petri dish from neural cells extracted from a rat embryo has been taught to fly an F-22 fighter jet (simulator)?

(...and I, for one, welcome...)
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:53 PM on December 7, 2004


daHIFI: Speklet, here's a Wired magazine article about a guy who helps companies design kosher machinery. Seems that opening a refigerator door on the Sabbath is work unless you can keep the light from turning on.

My sister has one of those. It's an oven that, when switched into Sabbath mode, stays on overnight without shutting off automatically (thus enabling her family to have hot food on Saturday without having to actually 'turn on' anything).

Gotta love loopholes. There's another one that permits Orthodox Jews to carry things outside on the Sabbath (ordinarily prohibited) if there's a raised wire surrounding the entire neighbourhood, 'cause then it's all one 'domain.'

To get back on topic... Doesn't this still run into the issue of ensoulment at conception?
posted by greatgefilte at 3:40 PM on December 7, 2004


Michael Gazzaniga, the council's most liberal member, calls Hurlbut's strategy a perversion of science. Instead of tinkering with language to fit biology, he observes, Hurlbut is tinkering with biology to fit language.

Ding ding ding. This guy isn't making this suggestion because it is effective science, he's suggesting it because it's an end run around the conservative view of the embryo. He's proposing a scientific process based on a semantic principle.

It's possible he's some kind of weird ironist and this is a lets-eat-irish-children inside joke scheme. But I doubt it.
posted by elwoodwiles at 4:02 PM on December 7, 2004


I don't get this at all. Leon Kass and the other Conservatives apparently agree that these little monstrosities aren't embryos - they're pre-embryonic. Is there some sort of non-fuzzy definition of embyro that I don't know about? If we aren't allowed to "kill" two-week old embryos conceived in the natural way, what makes these blobs of body parts so different? I would think that if the position of pro-lifers is that we can't know when it's permissible to harvest cloned human embryos, then we should be just as wary when harvesting these monstrosities. Maybe we're creating a bunch of poor little freaks waiting to be put out of their tortured existences. Where are they drawing the line?

I won't be entirely surprised to see Liberals disgusted by this. Liberals see a continuity between life and non-life rather than a hard and fast line. It seems almost paradoxical that one should be willing to abort fetuses but feel revulsion toward making and killing these stem-cell repositories, but I think it's probably consistent. It's a tough position to hold on to, though.
posted by painquale at 4:31 PM on December 7, 2004


Liberals see a continuity between life and non-life rather than a hard and fast line.
Oh wow. I don't even know where to start with this.

Again: how about that ever-useful word "some"? It's not like such a belief is or ever has been definitive of [l]iberalism.
posted by Adam Greenfield at 4:38 PM on December 7, 2004


AWESOME

bring on the blob-children of babylon!
posted by clockzero at 5:15 PM on December 7, 2004


OK, you caught me. SOME do. The reasonable, right ones do.
posted by painquale at 6:07 PM on December 7, 2004


Liberals see a continuity between life and non-life rather than a hard and fast line.

Well, we could talk about "life" in general, I suppose. It's difficult to define exactly what is a living thing, and most people put viruses somewhere in the grey area.

From a scientific view, there is no doubt that a fetus is alive, as there is no doubt that the cells lining my small intestine are alive, or that active yeast cells are alive, or that cells in a teratoma are alive.

But it's not mere life that's the point of debate in discussions like this one: it's human life. And I would argue that on this count, at least, most liberals in the abortion debate do see a hard and fast line: they draw the line at birth. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court was considerably more nuanced, allowing for a third-trimester fetus to be considered (in some cases, at least) human. But the courts continue to draw a hard and fast line: decisions on the so-called "partial birth abortion" law will help to delineate the boundaries more exactly.

The unfortunate truth is that, as a nation of laws, we must make policy based on hard and fast lines. Government isn't very good at grey areas.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:01 PM on December 7, 2004


Again: how about that ever-useful word "some"? It's not like such a belief is or ever has been definitive of [l]iberalism.

Wait, you mean you didn't get today's liberal-action-items flyer? I can send you my copy if you want, but by this point you might as well wait for tomorrow's edition, and just avoid communicating for the next few hours.
posted by odinsdream at 7:22 PM on December 7, 2004


most liberals in the abortion debate do see a hard and fast line: they draw the line at birth

I don't know if that's true, but if it is, that position is just as problematic as drawing the line at conception! I don't see much of a relevant difference between a fully-formed eight-month-three-week old fetus and a baby that just got spanked by a doctor. Everyone in the debate should (ideally) realize that there's no immediate graduation to personhood; it's a process smeared over nine months, and whatever line we come up with is going to be as arbitrary as our age of consent laws.

(For the record, I'm not even sure exactly how I feel about all cases of infanticide).
posted by painquale at 8:47 PM on December 7, 2004


I for one wlecome our new blob-children overlords!
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:34 PM on December 7, 2004


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