Medical advances yield ethical quagmire: Does NIH research ban protect or harm?

Under Lock and Chain Photo Credit: Pictures of Money via Flickr.

Under Lock and Chain Photo Credit: Pictures of Money via Flickr.

Lately it seems like the field of biomedical research has been incessantly presenting society with a whirlwind of game changing medical advances. Among other exciting recent developments, scientists have used 3-D printing to implant an artificial trachea in a sick infant, retinal prostheses have restored rudimentary sight to patients with degenerative vision loss, and scientists are working on a number of attempts to grow new human organs from stem cells. But with each new leap bringing us closer to potentially life-saving developments in medical science, scientists are increasingly finding themselves landing in unfamiliar terrain, rife with ethical stumbling blocks.

Historically there hasn’t been a consistent pattern of dealing with the ethical concerns that accompany biomedical research developments in the United States. In 1975 scientists from around the globe came together in Pacific Grove, California and, in a move that some describe as self-policing, came away with a strict set of safety and ethical guidelines for moving forward with recombinant DNA technology. On the opposite extreme in 2001, President George W. Bush placed a moratorium on public funding for stem cell research citing concerns about destroying embryos, significantly hampering the stem cell field for eight years.

This year the National Institute of health is working to determine the right approach to yet another area of controversial science that researchers say has the potential to enhance our understanding of human development and disease. On Sept. 23 the NIH issued a statement suspending funding for research that introduces human embryonic stem cells into early stage animal embryos — a process that some researchers even dream will eventually allow them to grow human organs in animals. In its statement, the NIH cited the need for a “deliberative process” and convened a workshop, which took place Nov. 6, 2015, to “evaluate the state of the science in this area, the ethical issues that should be considered, and the relevant animal welfare concerns.”

For some the ethical concerns are instant and obvious.

In addition to the element of animal welfare, an issue that frequently comes up in biomedical sciences, bioethicist Christopher Scott says some have a “gut level” reaction to this kind of research.

“For some people… there’s these unwritten species boundaries and we should keep human and animal species separate,” says the Stanford professor. “Otherwise we’re sort of blurring the boundary of what it means to be human and what it means to be animal.”

But Scott doesn’t hold these views himself and says a lot of important health research will go wanting if these restrictions stay in place. Even if we never get to something as dramatic as growing new organs in animals, he says this kind of research could be instrumental in understanding how organs develop in the body and allowing scientists to model how these organs become diseased.

“Humans make terrible research subjects,” says Scott. “That’s why we imagine things like this in science.”

Even after the November workshop where experts in the field gathered to deliberate the medical potential of the research, ethical concerns and strategies to address them, it is still unclear what the fate of the research will be. But Scott remains optimistic that the field will find a way to advance in this area — and in general — despite the controversial questions it faces today.

“One thing that we seem to do pretty well as a society is get our wits about us and talk through these controversies,” he says. “Sometimes it’s messy and frustrating and all the rest, but we always seem to find a way to move forward with appropriate cautions and regulations and appropriate oversights in place.”