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Human-chicken hybrids in the lab

Nature reports on the creation of human-chicken hybrids using “embryo-like structures” in order to study human embryonic “organizer cells.”

The ethical line is at destroying the embryo to harvest the stem cells. Could these “structures” have been created with ethical induced non-destructive stem cells?
I’m not sure that the “embryo-like” structures are or ever had the capacity to become human organisms, but it is worrying that the implication is that they were. It doesn’t appear that there was ever a placenta or the possibility of one. However, the “structures” developed a primitive streak and notochord – the earliest neural and skeletal structures – and other apparently human cell lines

, in an organized manner.

How significant are the primitive streak and notochord? Are these deliberately created stunted human organisms or simply cell lines and isolated organ systems grown in the lab? What are the ethical limits for creating huma-animal hybrids?
Scientists must respect the dignity of every human being, at every stage of life and development. That is not possible if beginning by destroying a human embryo.

Personhood “TBD” 

“To Be Determined,” or the Schrodingder’s cat* version of human rights.

Does the possession of inalienable human rights depend on unknown future facts? Can the moral worth of a human being be determined by the actions of another human being – or by fate, the available and utilized medical technology?

Sherif Girgis discusses the theory of Princeton philosopher, Elizabeth Harman, in today’s Public Discourse. The professor’s view that abortion is – or may be – a neutral act has been the subject of discussion since she appeared in the YouTube video, Philosophy Time, produced by actor James Franco and Eliot Michaelson.

Besides the obvious problems pointed out by Girgis of defining “consciousness” and the TBD “kind” of a human fetus, there are other problems.

First, any concept of “inalienable” human rights would need to be discarded. There goes the Declaration of Independence and the basis of the United States Constitution.

In addition, Professor Harman’s theory would presumably allow the use of bodies of the human species for the benefit of humans with “moral worth,” as long as those bodies are never allowed to become conscious. This is the current practice of researchers using embryos, including those created for the purpose of manipulation and destruction.

But there’s nothing in this philosophy to prevent the intentional manipulation of a human body for research or to benefit others, as long as the body is never allowed to develop consciousness. Continual sedation or mutilation of the brain from the beginning – before consciousness – would prevent the development or acquisition of moral worth and rights.

In the process, “human” rights would cease to exist. The actions of others, laws and location and the potential use of technology would finally determine who is human enough to possess the right not to be killed. (Forget the right not to be “enslaved.”

What happens if (as Girgis proposes) the abortion itself is aborted or fails? Or if the brain isn’t damaged sufficiently to prevent consciousness?

Forget about opening the box: don’t put humans in there in the first place.

*I saw this analogy on a Facebook thread, but thought the same thought before I stole it.

Edited to correct my misspelling of Dr. Harman’s name.

Human cloning fable doesn’t justify abortion.

Sigh . . . There are still people out there trying to justify elective abortion of healthy babies in healthy mothers by claiming that the embryo is nothing special, since liver tissue is alive when it is harvested for transplantation and ” . . . a skin cell contains DNA that could be implanted into a human egg and be developed into a baby.”
​That hypotheticals is, at this time, just that. No one has yet been able to clone humans beyond a very early blastocyst. In some way, these embryos don’t function well enough to maintain organized cell division, development and growth.
However, even if cloning a human were possible, that new human life would not begin at the harvesting of either the skin cell, the liver tissue or the oocyte destined to be enucleated. Just as with gametes in vivo, those cells are end-stage specialized cells that do *not* actually have the potential to be other types of cells – much less a new human – without fertilization or the manipulation that scientists might someday be able to discover.
The natural, in vitro, or someday-maybe cloned human life begins at fertilization or not-yet-achieved generation of functional clones. Each are – or would be, in the case of the hypothetical – verifiable by observing the organized cell function, development and division in the embryo, driven by the nucleus of the new organism.  Intentional, interventional abortion ends that organized development and growth, causing the death of the organism.

I’m sure my explanation won’t stop those who really,  really, reeeally want to abort unwanted humans from  using junk science to justify killing humans. Most likely, they will just go back to those long essays discriminating between which humans are human-enough.

Cloned human embryos announced

Cell SCNT diagramTachibana May June2013If we can still believe scientific journals, Cell reports in the June 6, 2013 issue indicate that  scientists have succeeded in cloning human embryos.

The term used for cloning by the group is “reprogramming” fibroblasts using somatic cell nuclear transplantation. However, there’s no longer an attempt by the authors or members of the scientific press to create a new “unfertilized blastocyst” or pre-embryo: the embryos are called embryos, morula, and blastocysts.In recognition that these are not quite the same as embryonic stem cells derived from embryos produced by direct fertilization, the stem cells derived from the cloned blastocysts are designated as “Nuclear Transfer Embryonic Stem Cells” or NT-ESC.

Tachibana’s group obtained well over a 100 oocytes from women who underwent ovarian stimulation and transvaginal retrieval.

The growth of four embryos to the blastocyst stage resulted in NT-ESC, after differentiation into a blastocyst with a trophoblast (precursor of the placenta) and the inner cell mass (the part that will develops into the actual body of the human). These embryos were destroyed to harvest the ICM.

The report details years of research to find the optimum technique for cloning human embryos. It was found that the mitotic stage of the oocytes, MII, is critical. The researchers further developed a protocol utilizing caffeine and electrical stimulation to induce activation of the fused nucleus from the skin cell and donor oocyte. In addition, the authors found that “higher quality oocytes,” those more likely to form viable embryos, resulted when the ovarian stimulation yielded fewer than ten oocytes. If larger numbers of oocytes were produced due to the ovarian stimulation, somatic cell nuclear transfer was less likely. In fact, the first four clones that developed far enough to produce NT-ESC came from one woman who donated eight oocytes in one cycle, resulting in the production of five cloned embryos.

There are several ethical problems which surround this research.

First, as strongly noted by the Center for Bioethics and Culture, the ovarian stimulation risks abuse of women who might be placed at risk due to the hormones administered to induce ovulation. As noted in the paper,

“In the context of generating patient-specific pluripotent stem cells, reproducible results with various patient-derived somatic cells and with different egg donors are a necessity.”

Although the donation is called voluntary and anonymous, the women were compensated for their “time, effort, discomfort, and inconvenience associated with the donation process.”    I can’t help but wonder about how long the anonymity will last for the one woman whose oocytes yielded those first four successful clones and NT-ESCs or for the two women whose oocytes yielded the clones confirming the reproducibility of their method, in the second stage of the research. Or how much pressure they will face to continue to donate “voluntarily.”

The lack of concern for the women involved is revealed in this interview with the authors at The Scientist,

““I was worried that we might need a couple of thousand eggs to make all these optimizations, to find that winning combination. But it actually took just 128 [eggs], which is a surprisingly low number to make 6 [hESC] lines.””

6 NT-ESC lines were derived from 128 harvested oocytes, for a yield of 4.6% In later stages, the success rate was still 2 NT-ESC lines from 7 embryos and 15 oocytes, or 13% of oocytes.

The primary objection is that 100% of the human embryos were created in harm’s way and must be destroyed to harvest the NT-ESCs.

These embryos are delayed human twins, artificially induced. Although the first cell of these embryos began in the lab, as the result of highly technical and involved procedures, they are human embryos and near-identical twins of the somatic cell nucleus.   There is indirect acknowledgement that the embryos are twins of the donor of the fibroblasts by the reporting that tests of the chromosomes of the cloned embryos show that the DNA matches that of the donor of the fibroblasts, a patient with Leigh’s syndrome.

The sources of fibroblast nuclei raise other ethical dilemmas. The first research was carried out using female fetal fibroblasts. Later research involved creating human embryos with Leigh’s syndrome.  Leigh’s syndrome results from a genetic defect of the mitochondria, the cell “power plant,” which is inherited from the mother and only found in the cell cytoplasm, not the nucleus. Reports are already ignoring the fact that the donor’s twins were produced with the express intention of destroying them for their inner cell mass. At least one is predicting that this is a technique which can be used to create future children for mothers who have the abnormal mitochondria.

The report, Tachibana et al., “Human Embryonic Stem Cells Derived by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer,” Cell (2013),, is available on-line and in PDF (as of today).

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