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Chair of new committee discusses ethics of stem cell research

- December 4, 2006

Anne Hiskes, associate professor of philosophy and former associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is director of research ethics and education for stem cell research.

She has been named by President Philip E. Austin to chair the Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight (ESCRO) Committee, which is charged with ensuring that stem cell research conducted by faculty at Storrs and the Health Center meets ethical standards.

Recently, she discussed the committee's work with Karen Grava of University Communications.

 Q  How does your task as chair of the ESCRO Committee relate to your background as a philosopher?

 A  I was trained in the history and philosophy of science and have always been interested in how "nonscientific" factors such as religious, ethical, political, and aesthetic values and the gender of scientists interact with the discovery and acceptance of scientific knowledge.

I co-authored a book [with husband Richard Hiskes, a political science professor] which examines the interaction between science and technology, public policy, and social values.

Ethics is an important area of philosophy.

Over the years I have included bioethical issues in my courses, conducted workshops on research ethics, and more recently focused on science, bioethics, and human rights in my teaching and research.

 Q  What will the ESCRO Committee do?

 A  The ESCRO is charged with developing ethical principles and policies for human embryonic stem cell research, reviewing and approving stem cell research protocols, and educating investigators about ethical issues connected with human stem cell research.

Our goals are to ensure that any ethically sensitive research is well-justified, and that inappropriate research does not occur.

 Q  Who is on the ESCRO Committee?

 A  The membership of the committee includes faculty from Storrs and the Health Center with scientific, ethical, and legal expertise, one stem cell expert from Central Connecticut State University, two community members, and representatives from Research Compliance.

Two of our members are ordained clergy.

 Q  The committee covers stem cell research at both Storrs and the Health Center. How does that work?

 A  The two campus cultures are very different, yet the president has appointed one ESCRO, the University's only cross-campus research oversight committee. A cross-campus stem cell oversight committee is important because the stem cell initiative is an institutional priority.

It is critical that standards be developed that apply across both campuses.

 Q  What is the potential of stem cell research?

 A  It could lead, for example, to the ability to control the development of cells and create certain kinds of cells to order. So theoretically, you could develop a pancreatic cell or a brain cell and implant them to cure diabetes or Parkinson's disease.

This research also could be very important from a social justice point of view if it provides cheaper and more accessible ways of curing diseases or repairing or replacing human organs.

If stem cell research realizes its full potential for good, it can be instrumental in creating a more just health care system.

 Q  What are the concerns ethicists have about human stem cell research?

 A  The origin of the human embryos is one of the biggest issues.

The least ethically controversial source of embryos is excess frozen embryos developed for the purpose of having a family using in vitro fertilization.

If a couple decide that they no longer wish to keep their frozen embryos, they are given the opportunity to donate them to research instead of discarding them.

No human embryos may be donated for stem cell research without full informed and voluntary consent from the donors.

Anne Hiskes, associate professor of philosophy, heads a new University committee that oversees stem cell research.
Anne Hiskes, associate professor of philosophy, heads a new University committee that oversees stem cell research.
Photo by Stephanie Gagliardi

But there is also the issue of whether it is ethical to create human embryos only for research purposes.

People are concerned that this demeans human dignity and the inherent value of the human individual by creating human life simply for use as a research tool.

There are also ethical issues connected with the methods used to create embryos for research.

Some people regard the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer - "therapeutic cloning" - as particularly problematic. That means creating an embryo by using an unfertilized human egg, discarding the nucleus and replacing it with DNA from, say, a skin cell.

The egg is then caused to begin cell division.

There is an international ban on using nuclear transfer for human reproduction.

It is the one thing on which there is worldwide agreement.

Some people regard therapeutic cloning as particularly problematic because they see it as another step toward the engineering of human beings and reducing them to mere objects.

Others see it as the first step toward using cloning for human reproduction.

 Q  The ESCRO recently sponsored a talk about chimeras. Can you explain that term?

 A  A chimera is an animal with cells that have origins from two different embryos.

Major figures in myth such as the centaur are examples of this.

They represent the evil and chaos unleashed by transgressing the order and boundaries of nature - say between human and animals.

But to test human embryonic stem cells as a way to cure Alzheimer's or Parkinson's may ultimately require us to implant human stem cells into animal brains.

Many people are very uncomfortable with this idea and it is clear that it will require a great deal of monitoring and oversight.

 Q  Has an ethics protocol been developed that we can follow?

 A  No. We cannot look this up in a manual. All of the institutions doing this research are in it together.

Wisconsin developed the first human embryonic stem cells in 1998.

Harvard researchers have been doing this research for a number of years.

Yet we all created ESCRO committees about the same time, with UConn even a bit earlier than some others, in response to guidelines for human embryonic stem cell research issued in April 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences.

It is very much a work in progress, especially since the science changes all the time. And none of the operational details are covered in the guidelines. There is no case law to use either.

 Q  What precautions are we taking to ensure that our stem cell research is ethical?

 A  Any human embryonic stem cell research conducted at the University of Connecticut must follow protocols approved by the ESCRO.

For example, we follow the standard guidelines that no embryos or gametes can be used without voluntary informed consent and that researchers cannot allow any embryos to develop past day 14 or past the development of what is called the "primitive streak."

A University system of education and monitoring is also important. Researchers who violate accepted standards could lose their funding and be unable to publish their findings.

The best system is when researchers and the scientific community self-regulate, with the guidance of nationally or internationally accepted standards.

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