by Youssef Rizk, Esq.

While doing some reading online during the work day, I came across an article about a recently FDA approved experiment that would attempt to develop a treatment for autism using stem cells collected from the child’s umbilical cord blood (“cord blood”) at birth. Quickly summarized, the experiment intends to locate children with autism that do not exhibit any obvious genetic pre-disposition for the disease, such as a hereditary history.  The experiment also attempts to rule out people with head injuries or other trauma that may have caused autism.  The study intends to focus on children with autism that developed the disease from factors like the environment or exposure to infection (perhaps easier said than done when it comes to filtering out candidates, but that’s their problem to figure out).

What really interested me about the article was one particular paragraph that read:

“Using the child’s own cord blood will make the study safe and ethical – plus, the cells are younger and have not been exposed to environmental factors, like viruses or chemicals, which can alter the cell’s function and structure. By using the children’s own stem cells, their bodies cannot reject them.”

The article suggests that using the children’s cord blood to gather stem cells is ethically sound in light of how divisive stem cell research is in society. The objections are mainly against human embryonic stem cells and the research performed using them, which is an objection closely linked to the abortion debate (and I am conveniently going to steer clear of that debate). Objections, which prompted President Bush to limit embryonic research and which President Obama reversed during his presidency. Nonetheless, using one’s own cord blood for stem cell research arguably avoids any ethical issues. It is simply blood kept for the original host’s use at a later time and does not rely on stem cells from other sources.

Intentional or not (and I’m assuming intentional), this experiment is designed in a way that avoids the stem cell research controversy. The decision to use the cord blood of the patients themselves is an admittedly smart way of going about obtaining stem cells because that also ensures that the patient will not reject those cells. It also happens to avoid the ethical debate, thus rendering the experiment with less opposition (if any) and easier to approve by the FDA.

One could argue that true/pure science should not be at the mercy of public opinion and that an experiment should remain unbiased by such opinions. The idea that allowing public opinion into science, corrupts pure scientific research could in fact have some truth (see the old “Cigarettes are good for you” ads like this one:  

Nonetheless, we don’t live in a world where scientists can do whatever they want. Politics are everywhere from the highest reaches of the government to the struggle between competing lab-mates working on similar experiments. Scientists that seek to excel have no choice, but to play society’s games in order to keep progressing in their fields. Scientists often need to be liked as well as distinguished, especially when much of the funding for scientific fields comes from non-scientific sources. David H. Guston of Rutgers University calls it the principal-agent theory.

I thought about political influence on science when I read about the FDA approved autism experiment. Did the scientists consider potential societal objections to their work in such a controversial field? Did that consideration have a factor in the design of their experiment and in seeking FDA approval? Taking into account the fact that the laws of a nation can severely limit or open up scientific research, a good scientist would seem to have to take political factors into considerations for not only experiments, but for grants, and reputation. A scientist that knows how to “play the game” may be the scientist that has the best chance of advancing science.

I find this type of balancing act fascinating because unless a scientist goes off into international waters and funds his/her own research, there is always an influence of public opinion weighing in on the advancement goals of science. Does that influence merely dictate what fields scientists pursue or does it in fact dictate the course of experiments as well? The brief point made in the article about the experiment with autism and stem cells seems to illustrate just one example of where science as well as law/politics meet to discuss ethics.

One thought on “Experimental Ethics

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