A pioneering Johns Hopkins stem cell expert and one of the institution's leading bioethicists have won a multiyear grant from the Greenwall Foundation to develop far-reaching recommendations on a "second generation" of ethical questions about stem cell research.
John D. Gearhart and Ruth Faden say the "Ethics and Cell Engineering: The Next Generation" project builds on their long-standing informal partnership dedicated to carefully navigating the frontiers of human developmental biology.
"We want to take these issues to a relatively mature level of analysis before they become political footballs so as to provide the public, policy-makers and the scientific community with a reasoned backdrop for the decisions they will inevitably face," says Faden, the Philip Franklin Wagley Professor of Biomedical Ethics at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and executive director of the Phoebe R. Berman Bioethics Institute of The Johns Hopkins University.
In the first 18 months of the project, invited experts in genetics, transplantation, ethics, stem cell science and law will meet to share their views on the need for and possible nature of criteria for selecting stem cell lines from which medical therapies would ultimately be developed. Issues include questions of safety, transplant rejection, privacy, genetic diversity and public access, Faden says.
Gearhart, whose lab discovered human embryonic germ cells, a type of all-purpose stem cell derived from fetal tissue, says, "The dilemma in this case boils down to what might be needed to ensure sufficient, safe stem cells for future potential therapies from which all of us can benefit. For example," he says, "right now we don't know if the immune profile of the cells would need to match the recipient if used as a medical therapy, but it's possible and even likely, and that would probably require more cell lines than we have now."
The project represents the first activity of the Bioethics Institute's newly created Program in Cellular Engineering, Ethics and Public Policy. The program provides the infrastructure for considering policy options and issues related to research with and potential medical use of reprogrammed human cells.
"The idea," says Faden, "is to anticipate the issues that will arise as research with embryonic and adult stem cells advances so we can avoid having to take a reactionary stance."
The Greenwall Foundation, created in 1949 by Frank and Anna Greenwall, is an independent foundation located in New York City. Its grant making is restricted to bioethics, arts and humanities, and education.