There has been a lot of buzz this week about a new, nonlethal method of harvesting embryonic stem cells. The basic idea is to use the same procedure used in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis , a genetic test done on oocytes before they implant in order to determine if they carry any major diseases or mutations. This is done by removing a single blastomere (cell) from the embryo at its 8-10 cell stage. This is a routine procedure and does not impede development (although there are always rare cases of complications, but that goes for all medical procedures, from toenail trimming to heart transplants).
Sounds great, right? You get embryonic stem cells AND a baby, it solves all of our ethical problems.
There has been criticism and controversy, however, that this may not be the miracle solution that some would like us to think. There are several issues to be considered. Apparently stem cells derived like this act differently from "normal" ones, sometimes they randomly stop growing or display other random patterns that would make them unreliable in research. Also, they require feeder cells and growth medium, which come from mouse cells. This creates the potential for contamination. Finally, it has not been proven that cells from the morula stage of a mammalian embryo (8-16 cells) are truly pluripotent (meaning they have the potential to become any and all of the cells in the body.
It would be wonderful if the new method is really the holy grail of stem cell research like many headlines have claimed, but there are still many kinks to be worked out, it is too early to get cocky and celebrate just yet. I am 100% for stem cell research, but caution has to be taken to make sure we aren't jumping ahead of ourselves and rejoicing too early, only further research will show how useful this new technique will actually become.
On a related note, click here to see what happens to all of those embryos in fertility clincs that are "saved" from being used to harvest stem cells. If that isn't 'a tragic waste of potential, I don't know what is.