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J Med Ethics 30:410-413 doi:10.1136/jme.2003.002386
  • Clinical ethics

Stem cells, embryos, and the environment: a context for both science and ethics

  1. C R Towns,
  2. D G Jones
  1. Department of Anatomy and Structural Biology, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand
  1. Correspondence to:
 Professor D Gareth Jones
 Department of Anatomy and Structural Biology, University of Otago, PO Box 913, Dunedin, New Zealand; gareth.jonesstonebow.otago.ac.nz
  • Accepted 30 May 2003
  • Revised 3 April 2003

Abstract

Debate on the potential and uses of human stem cells tends to be conducted by two constituencies—ethicists and scientists. On many occasions there is little communication between the two, with the result that ethical debate is not informed as well as it might be by scientific insights. The aim of this paper is to highlight those scientific insights that may be of relevance for ethical debate.

Environmental factors play a significant role in identifying stem cells and their various subtypes. Research related to the role of the microenvironment has led to emphasis upon “plasticity”, which denotes the ability of one type of stem cell to undergo a transition to cells from other lineages. This could increase the value given to adult stem cells, in comparison with embryonic stem cell research. Any such conclusion should be treated with caution, however, since optimism of this order is not borne out by current research.

The role of the environment is also important in distinguishing between the terms totipotency and pluripotency. We argue that blastocysts (early embryos) and embryonic stem cells are only totipotent if they can develop within an appropriate environment. In the absence of this, they are merely pluripotent. Hence, blastocysts in the laboratory are potentially totipotent, in contrast to their counterparts within the human body which are actually totipotent. This may have implications for ethical debate, suggesting as it does that arguments based on potential for life may be of limited relevance.

Footnotes