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Stem Cell Research
An Interview with Mr. George J. Annas
Mr. George J. Annas is the Edward R. Utley Professor
and Chair of the Department of Health Law, Bioethics & Human
Rights of Boston University School of Public Health, and Professor
in the Boston University School of Medicine and School of Law. He
is the co-founder of Global Lawyers and Physicians, a transnational
professional association of lawyers and physicians working together
to promote human rights and health. He has degrees from Harvard
College (AB, economics '67), Harvard Law School (JD '70) and Harvard
School of Public Health (MPH '72).
The biggest controversy in stem cell research
deals with the sources of the stem cells. Given each of the following
sources of stem cells, what are your opinions of the ethics of each
and why or why not?
In my opinion, taking leftover embryos from fertility
clinics - the leftover embryos that couples do not want to use anymore
- is fine as long as the couples consent to that kind of donation.
I think it is okay to use those to do stem cell
research; I do not, however, think it is okay to try to make a baby
out of those.
I think that it is okay to use that technique
to make stem cells to use for research, but again, not to make a
Do you think that adult stem cells hold enough potential
to avoid having to worry about using embryonic stem cells?
I think adult stem cells have enough potential to warrant research
and research funding into that area on the part of the federal government,
but I do not think they have enough potential to foreclose embryonic
stem cell research altogether.
Is that because of the limited potential for the adult stem
cells to develop into different kinds of cells?
The reason is that we do not know very much about them. Actually,
we do not know very much about either type of cell yet. I think
we are right at the beginning of research here, and it would be
premature to actually close off one whole area of research. On the
other hand, I think that the people who say that we may be able
to do whatever we want with adult stem cells and with umbilical
cord stem cells may be right; the truth is, we just don't
So, you would say that more research in both areas is a
Yes. It would not bother me if we spent more money on adult stem
cells than we do on embryonic stem cells in pursuing that research.
Regarding President Bush's 2001 regulations regarding
stem cell research that was eligible for federal funding, do you
feel that his decision was appropriate, too strict, or too lenient?
I actually do not think his decision made any sense at all. It is
either right or wrong to use embryonic stem cells. Setting an arbitrary
date on when they were created does not change that situation at
all. Also, that decision seems to have been based on a misunderstanding
as to how many stem cell [lines] were going to be available and
whether that was going to be sufficient to do the high-level research
that people have in mind.
What direction should he have taken? What regulations would
you have imposed?
I would have permitted National Institutes of Health funding for
embryonic stem cell research under pretty heavy regulation. It would
have to be done in the public, all protocols would have to be approved
by a national body, a national review board that met in public.
The research would have to be done only in designated, approved
laboratories. It would have to be totally separate from any in vitro
fertilization clinic or any fertility clinic. There would have to
be no possibility of using those embryos for anything other than
research. There could be no freezing of embryos made for research,
and there could be no commerce of those embryos. It would be similar
to the regulations* coming out of the Clinton Administration, right
at the end of his term. I actually thought that those were pretty
Will his decision to restrict federal funding for only existing
cell lines push a lot of research into the private sector and what
are the implications of this?
Well, I think it is more likely, in the United States at least,
to discourage scientists from doing research in this area at all.
Most researchers, especially those affiliated with academic institutions,
actively seek out federal funding from the National Institutes of
Health, and really, areas of research that are not funded by NIH
are tainted they just seem to be illegitimate or less preferred.
So it is just going to be less likely that anyone in the public
view is going to be doing this kind of research.
What about other countries? Do you think that they will
benefit from having more relaxed rules than we have, and that this
will put the United States behind in stem cell research?
It is hard, to know, but certainly research has been approved, although
it has not started yet, in England and China and Singapore. Sweden
has indicated that it is going to go ahead with this research. So,
it is certainly not going to help our competitive position.
Do you think that there should be an international consensus
on what stem cell sources are acceptable?
I would certainly like to see an international consensus. I actually
would like to see them propose an international treaty that outlaws
the use of cloning technologies to make babies, and outlaws the
genetic engineering of embryos to make "better babies."
On the other hand, making stem cells to do research should be permitted,
but if individual countries outlaw that, I have no problem with
that. However, I think we should develop international rules about
all human research, including this type of research.
How do decisions about the ethical uses/sources of stem
cells affect decisions about cloning, or vice versa?
They are related for practical reasons, in that, once you make an
embryo using the so-called Dolly cloning technique (somatic cell
nuclear transfer), you could use that embryo to try to begin a pregnancy,
rather than destroying it to try to make stem cells. So, they are
related in that practical manner, and that does mean that if you
want to permit embryonic stem cell research and prohibit making
babies with those embryos, you would have to highly regulate this
area of research, and I think that is highly desirable.
What do you think the future of stem cell research will
be? Will the world see much benefit from it, or is there going to
be too much controversy around it for anything useful to come of
I think it is too soon to say. There is a lot of hype about regenerative
medicine and the hope, of course, is that we are going to be able
to regrow new tissues new heart tissues, new nerve tissue,
new pancreatic tissue to repair injured tissues and organs.
I join in that hope, but I think, right now, it is very premature
to say if and when that is ever going to happen. On the other hand,
we have enough theoretical basis for that hope that we should pursue
research in this area. But I would not oversell it; I think it is
irresponsible to oversell this technology.
Do you think that the direction that we are moving in with
stem cell research, and the sources that we are trying to get them
from, is becoming too open and is going to violate a lot of long-held
beliefs about protecting human life?
It is moving slowly, and I think we certainly want to move slowly.
I think we are trying to develop an international consensus, and
we have some. We have international consensus about making a baby
with cloning no one wants to do that. It is almost universally
condemned. There is no international consensus, however, on the
use of embryonic stem cells to do research. I think that, if it
were put to a vote, the majority of industrialized countries, at
least, would be in favor of using embryonic stem cells for research.
I happen to agree with that position, so I am not terribly upset
about that direction, but certainly, people who believe that the
human embryo should not be used for research are right to be upset.
They are not winning the day on this one.
Submitted by: Kyle Gracey, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,
2003 Fall Intern