Seeking Consensus: A Clarification and Defense of Altered Nuclear Transfer

Hastings Center Report 36:5 (September-October 2006), with William Hurlbut and Markus Grompe.

Since 1998, when human embryonic stem cellswere first isolated, our nation has been locked ina conflict over federal funding of this new field of scientific research. Both sides in the debate are defending important human goods, and both of these goods—opening avenues for advance in medicine and protecting nascent human life—are important to all of us. A purely political solution will leave our country bitterly divided, eroding the social support and sense of noble purpose that is essential for the public funding of biomedical science. While there are currently no federal restrictions on the use of private funds for this research, there is a consensus in the scientific community that without federal support for newly created embryonic stem cell lines, progress in this emerging field of scientific inquiry will be seriously constrained.

In May 2005, acknowledging our national impasse over embryonic stem cell research, the President’s Council on Bioethics published a white paper that outlines a series of proposals for obtaining pluripotent stem cells (the functional equivalent of embryonic stem cells) without the creation or destruction of human embryos.1 One of these proposals, “altered nuclear transfer” (ANT) has stirred considerable public interest and affirmation, including several legislative proposals that would provide funding for its further exploration. There is substantial support among leading scientists, moral philosophers, and religious leaders for the view that ANT may offer a scientifically feasible and morally sound way forward on ES cell research.2

At the same time, there has been some confusion about ANT, leading to its mischaracterization in certain reports and published commentaries. In a recent cover story on stem cell research in Time magazine, ANT was described as a project that “would ensure that the embryo lives only long enough to produce stem cells and then dies.”3 But the whole idea of ANT is to produce pluripotent stem cells without creating an embryo. Time’s description has ANT violating the very moral principle it is intended to uphold.

Acknowledging the complexity of the scientific and ethical issues at the foundation of this proposal, and in the spirit of constructive dialogue, we seek in this essay first to offer a clear and accurate account of ANT, and then to respond to some of the more significant questions and concerns about it.

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