Adult Stem Cells or Tissue From Abortions: Ethics of Improving Eyesight

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Nov 1, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Adult Stem Cells or Tissue From Abortions: Ethics of Improving Eyesight Email this article
Printer friendly page

by Maria Vitale Gallagher Staff Writer
November 1, 2004

Toronto, Canada ( — Researchers at the University of Toronto have made a discovery using adult stem cells which could return the gift of good eyesight to people suffering from macular degeneration.

The research team found that human retinal adult stem cells, transplanted into the eyes of mice and chickens, can regenerate.

The retinal stem cells can develop into light-sensing photoreceptor cells and retinal pigment epithelial cells which bounce light and images back onto the retina.

Researcher Brenda Coles told Medical News Today, “We transplanted the cells early in the animals’ development when all the nutrients and signals they needed for differentiation were still there. When their eyes fully developed, the human cells survived, migrated into the sensory part of the eye and formed the correct cells."

Coles concedes it could take a while to develop treatment for macular degeneration, but it does offer hope that a cure is possible.

"We’re starting with mice to see if they can overcome the genetics involved in disease. The eye itself is telling the stem cells what to do, so when we go to a disease model, it is important to know what those signals from the eye are so we can inhibit them or protect the cells," Coles told Medical News Today.

Meanwhile, some U.S. researchers claim they have restored a woman’s sight using eye cells from aborted children.

The University of Louisville research team concedes they worry that critics will claim they’re promoting abortion through the controversial research practice.

While the United Kingdom has guidelines to ensure that people cannot conceive and then abort a child for the express purpose of scientific experimentation, such rules don’t exist in the U.S.

The cells from an aborted baby were used in an attempt to restore the vision of a 63-year-old woman, Elisabeth Bryant.

Bryant told the publication New Scientist, “Now I can see people’s eyes, noses and mouths when they’re sitting across the room from me."

A half dozen patients have reportedly received similar transplants in order to attempt to correct their eyesight. The Food and Drug Administration has approved the team’s request to perform similar transplants on people with less serious diseases.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for a group known as Comment on Reproductive Ethics told the British press that using tissues from aborted children is unnecessary when conducting scientific research.

“Why bother doing something that’s ethically difficult or unacceptable when you can take stem cells from adults?" he said to the BBC.

And David Prentice, a bioethics expert with the Family Research Council, noted there are a number of problems associated with using fetal tissue for scientific research.

“First the ethical — you have to destroy a young human life to get the tissue for the transplant," Prentice said.

Prentice worries about the promotion of abortion such research will create.

"[W]hat about the possibility that someone will have an abortion just to ‘harvest’ parts for transplant? In fact, what’s to stop them from getting pregnant just for the purpose of later aborting to get tissues," Prentice asked.

Prentice also said using tissue from abortions may present medical complications in patients.

"We’ve seen in the past in a large number of Parkinson’s patients that the fetal tissue is somewhat unmanageable — it made 15-25 percent of the patients worse, because it tends to grow more than needed," Prentice said.

Third, Prentice added, adult stem cell research has yielded more favorable results.

"In September, a group at UCLA Medical School were able to rescue mice from retinal degeneration using adult bone marrow stem cells. Their comments to the press were that they were ‘running to the clinic’ with this. It works, and the adult stem cells are tame and don’t grow out of control," Prentice said.

Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics: