The ethics of stem cell research

In 1838, before publishing his theory that tissue is made up of tiny particles he called cells, German physiologist Theodor Schwann sought permission outside the realm of science. “He asked the religious authorities whether it was OK,” said Ronald D.G. McKay, Ph.D., chief of the laboratory of molecular biology at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, where he studies stem cell differentiation. “The current controversy over stem cells,” said McKay at a meeting of the Medical School Council last fall, “is nothing new.” Embryonic stem cells offer the promise of cures for such diseases as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, but they must be extracted from embryos that are destroyed in the process. “For certain people,” said McKay, “if you take cells out of an early embryo you commit an act of ethical impropriety. We have people who might benefit from these cells, and that is another moral issue. There is no way of moving forward without making ethical decisions.”