William Hurlbut, a physician and ethicist, is best known as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Though he has spoken out against the destruction of embryos for research purposes, he is nonetheless a supporter of embryonic-stem-cell research. He avoids what would otherwise be a terminal paradox through a proposal that he calls “altered nuclear transfer,” or ANT. His goal: to create embryonic stem cells without destroying human embryos.
One of the most promising methods for creating embryonic stem cells is cloning: the nucleus of an egg cell is replaced by the nucleus of an adult cell, a process called somatic-cell nuclear transfer. The egg is then induced to divide, and the stem cells harvested from the resulting embryo are pluripotent, meaning they can form any sort of tissue in the body. But harvesting the stem cells destroys the embryo. By contrast, ANT (which has been shown to work in mice, if not humans) switches off vital genes–through alteration of the somatic-cell nucleus, the cytoplasm of the egg, or both–before the transfer takes place. Hurlbut says the resulting cell mass could not become an embryo but could produce pluripotent stem cells.
Hurlbut recently spoke with Michael Fitzgerald about ANT.
TR: What compelled you to come up with altered nuclear transfer?
William Hurlbut: When the President’s Council met [to debate the ethics of stem-cell research, in 2002], it was clear that both sides of this debate are promoting important positive goods: that on the one hand you have people trying to defend human dignity from its earliest stages, and on the other hand you have people trying to promote advances in science and medicine. And as I sat there and listened to this debate, I thought, “Isn’t there an answer to this? Isn’t there some third option, some way that both of these goals can be achieved?”
I thought of dermoid cysts, benign ovarian tumors that produce all the cell types, tissues, and partial organs of the human body. Clearly something like embryonic stem cells is being produced in those tumors. And I thought to myself, “If nature can do this, we can do it. There must be simple technological alterations we could use in concert with nuclear transfer such that we produced embryonic-type, pluripotent stem cells, but without producing the unitary organism that is a human embryo.”
TR: Does ANT produce truly pluripotent stem cells?
WH: [MIT’s] Rudy Jaenisch got pluripotent cells. He injected some of the cells into living mice, and they formed tumors with all the tissue types in them. So yes, it works. The next step with altered nuclear transfer is to study it in primates. If it works in primates, specifically in rhesus macaques, then we can proceed with pretty good confidence, but also caution, in working with human cells.