Much of the early media coverage of Schöler’s research raised false hopes of eggs-for-all. On May 2, the day after the article was published in Science Online, The Washington Post put an interesting slant on the team’s research. Basing their assertion on the fact that eggs were generated from male ES cells, the Post suggested that gay couples were now one step closer to procreating together. The European media were just as guilty: They frenzied readers with headlines like, “Eggs Over Easy” and “Who Needs Ovaries?”

Schöler says the onslaught of phone calls was immediate. In the weeks after the paper was published, he fielded hundreds of inquiries from around the world. Senators and governors phoned in and e-mailed, as did infertility clinics, anti-gay organizations, laboratories seeking to collaborate, and hopeful study participants.

But while mice are good models for the study of human physiology, these findings cannot necessarily be extrapolated to people. “Often what works in mice doesn’t even work in rats,” Donovan says.

Nevertheless, bioethicists are preparing for the worst, or—depending on the individual’s position—the best. One group praises Schöler’s research (U.S. patent pending) as setting the stage for potential egg factories that would take the pressure off women to donate. Many medical researchers, like Cibelli, embrace this position. “As a cloner,” he says, “I can say the sex appeal is having an unlimited supply of eggs without having to worry about donors.”

The other group of bioethicists, says Schöler, denounces the research. “They say, ‘Now you’re actually creating life in a dish.’ But some of the things they see as big problems are actually not. They think therapeutic cloning is a slippery slope toward reproductive cloning, which we know is not feasible in humans.”

Penn’s McGee describes stem-cell ethics as a highly charged field that touches on hot buttons like abortion, fetal-tissue use, cloning, organ transplantation, gene therapy, and animal welfare. And it challenges society to do the impossible—agree on a uniform definition of the word embryo. McGee, who contends that one cannot use the word unless one thinks it can be born, recently asked 30 embryologists to define an embryo. He got 30 different answers. But characterizing an embryo may well be simpler than ruling on whether or not it can be killed.

If the germ cells prove to be viable enough for nuclear transfer (cloning) but not for producing offspring, then Schöler’s work may deflate the main argument against therapeutic cloning—that it manufactures embryos so that they can be destroyed.

“We have in this research a real opportunity to possibly define something that is not an embryo but is like one,” McGee says.

Conspiracy theorists have weighed in on the argument, claiming that the manufacture of eggs in a dish could really be a cloaked attempt to ultimately take women out of the reproduction picture. (Never mind the fact that scientists have not yet come up with a way to grow a uterus in a dish.)

While some fret over remote possibilities, Dr. Ruth Hubbard, professor emeritus of biology at Harvard and a founding member of the Council for Responsible Genetics, preaches reserve: “Long-term scenarios are really not very useful.”

But one thing is for sure, says Dr. Rosemarie Tong, distinguished professor of healthcare ethics at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. “We need to let the ethical-social-legal-nexus catch up to these complexities.”

The U.S. government has hardly rushed to support human ES-cell research. Countries like Sweden, Israel, Singapore, and Australia have comparatively fewer restrictions.

Of the $27 billion National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget for fiscal 2003, $419 million has been allocated for stem cell research. (Schöler holds a $1.25 million NIH grant to study the role of Oct4 during germline development.) But President George W. Bush, who
has articulated his ethical concerns about stem-cell research, limited federal funding to the 70 or so stem-cell lines created on or before August 9, 2001 (of which only 12 are considered potentially viable for research). Some critics decry this as a possible conflict of interest: Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson is the former governor of Wisconsin; the largest stem-cell patent holder in the country, the University of Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), holds the patents on some 60 of the approved lines.

In addition, more than 30 states have laws on the books pertaining to stem-cell research. In Pennsylvania, the Abortion Control Act of 1989 is somewhat ambiguous on the issue. Although the Rendell administration has not yet clarified its position, the state’s attorney general supports President Bush’s policy, says Sean Connolly, spokesman for Attorney General Mike Fisher.

Schöler says the federal restrictions on the use of ES cells could hamper advances in therapeutic cloning. “Although I know that we still have a long way to go and maybe all attempts at the end may turn out to be futile, I have a problem with people trying to tell me I can’t save my beloved if I have the ability to do it,” he says.

While McGee believes that “the future of medical care probably won’t involve extracting goo from embryonic stem cells,” he says stem cells teach us more about our bodies’ cellular mechanisms so we might one day develop pharmaceuticals designed to make our own cells work better.

It is too early to gauge the impact stem cells will have on the future of medicine. Other newer medical technologies like gene therapy and somatic (mature) cell cloning have fallen shy of their promises. Since application is everything in science, history will likely judge the value in harvesting eggs from ES cells in light of what it ultimately does for humanity. But what of science for the sake of science?

Schöler, the pensive purist, acknowledges that it “would be wonderful if our finding paved the way to therapies, as many people hope. But even if this turned out not to be the case, I think we now have a tool to get a better understanding of the biology of the oocyte, the one cell that I think is the most amazing of all. At the end of my life, I hope to have caught at least a glimpse of its magic.”

Joan P. Capuzzi Giresi C’86 V’98 wrote about her experience studying at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine in “Alumni Voices: The Deluxe Edition” in November/December 2002.

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 09/02/03

FEATURE: The Most Amazing Cell
By Joan P. Capuzzi Giresi
Illustration by Julia Vakser