Ethical Problems of Biological Engineering

Because the technological advances characteristic of these times have made our lives easier in many ways, we have encumbered science. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a tremendous reminder that the imprudent use of the power granted by scientific innovation can become the most destructive of human forces. However, human beings continue to test the limits of science that is now exploring the territory of stem cells implants, cloning and genetic engineering of food, all serious controversial issues.

In the past 30 years a silent scientific revolution prevailed over the social upheavals characteristic of the late 60s and early 70s. Students were no longer fighting for educational reforms, feminism had already achieved significant social victories, Fidel Castro was internationally discredited and Vietnam was over. But science was making astonishing progress in unlocking vital secrets in nature and probably opening a Pandora’s box.

In the past three decades, scientists in charge of the genoma project determined the structure of the genes responsible for the appearance of humans and plants, and for disease. They also found ways to manipulate them. The results: cloning, genetic engineering, widespread transplants for higher rates of survival and stem cell technology.

A good example is Dolly the sheep (1996) that turned biology upside down. It demonstrated that any cell of the body could turn back into an embryo, to produce a genetic replica of the original body. However, three years after Dolly was born, nature raised its warning. Scientists found that Dolly’s cells looked older than the ones of same age natural-born sheep. At 3 years old, Dolly seemed to be 9.

Interestingly enough, medical advances in technology have run parallel to the uncapping of principles that Chinese already knew well 5,000 years ago. Alternative and complementary medicines, which I prefer to call holistic practices, are based on the principle that given ideal conditions, the body has an astonishing capacity for self-healing and for protecting itself against disease.

It seems that science is moving simultaneously in two opposite directions. On one side, we are replacing body parts with metal and plastic and aim to create human organs in the lab. But on the other side, we become increasingly aware that this part replacements would not be necessary if we introduced changes in our lifestyle based on what medics knew before Christ, that our lifestyle determines our vulnerability to disease.

While much of the current inspiration for self-care and health prevention comes from conservative Hippocrates, who 2,500 years ago recommended: “Let the food be your medicine,” current liberal science aims at manipulating our bodies and food to generate health! And of course, the underlying motivation is profit.

In 2000 more evidence that playing with nature was risky was found by the same Scottish team who produced Dolly, was making chickens that would lay eggs containing medication. A year later, though, they warned against cloning animals for meat and milk production, as they found that cloned animals suffered from severe immune system problems.

At present, the most controversial of issues in science seems to be stem cells. These cells can be produced by cloning or by a process called nuclear transplantation, which produces cells with the same genetic makeup as the individual who donated the original body cell.

Stem cells are “unprogrammed cells,” found in embryos and lately also in adults, which have the potential to become any type of cell. Scientists dream of making organs out of stem cells or to repair tissues injecting them in an organ. They predict the creation of a new pancreas to cure diabetes, for example. In theory, stem cells could replace lost cells and make new entire new organs.

Only a bit more than a decade old, stem cell technology has not gone very far yet but has raised ethical concerns and prompted a political debate because in most cases it requires destruction of the human embryos used to create them. The fundamental questions sustaining the debate are if the embryos used to produce stem cells are or not human life, and thus should be protected, and if these human embryos, that will be destroyed anyway, shouldn’t be used for a greater good.

Many different groups have expressed their concerns. Catholic bishops have prevented Catholics from signing a petition to protect stem-cell work. There is a coalition of businesses, patient groups and universities leading a petition drive to protect stem cell research. Senator Dianne Feinstein has urged a ban on human reproductive cloning while allowing promising nuclear transplantation research to continue. President Bush assigned funds only to support research on stem cells where embryos had already been destroyed.

Recently, Dr. Jean Toma proved that stem cells can also be grown from adult skin, including tissue discarded after plastic surgery and the foreskin discarded after newborn circumcisions, showing that perhaps bioethical concerns can be sidestepped. The problem, scientists say, is adult stem cells are capable to produce several but limited numbers of cell types while embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos and have the potential to become all types of specialized cells.

Even though, stem cells have opened the door to a different concept in natural healing, it continues to raise concerns about unforeseen consequences on the long term. The multimillionaire wellness industry is producing botanical extract products like StemEnhance, that claims to promote the release of stem cells from the bone marrow into the bloodstream. Those stem cells are said to travel to areas of the body where they are most needed for cell regeneration and tissue repair. But only time will help us discern the true benefits that may derive from this.

Still, we have no precise idea of what will be the effects of all this playing with the forces of nature.