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Experts discuss use of human stem cells in ape and monkey brains

An expert panel of stem cell scientists, primatologists, philosophers and lawyers has concluded that experiments implanting, or grafting, human stem cells into non-human primate brains could unintentionally shift the moral ground between humans and other primates. Writing in the July 15 issue of Science, the panel reports its recommendations for minimizing the chances that experiments with human stem cells could change the cognitive and emotional capabilities -- and hence the "moral status" -- of the animals.

"We quickly realized that a fundamental issue was whether such experiments might unintentionally alter the animals' normal cognitive capacity in ways that could cause considerable suffering," says Ruth Faden, Ph.D., M.P.H., director of the Phoebe R. Berman Bioethics Institute at The Johns Hopkins University. Faden, John Gearhart, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins' Institute for Cell Engineering, and Guy McKhann, M.D., of Hopkins' Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, were co-organizers of the panel.

The panel's deliberations focused on the potential effects of grafting human stem cells into the brains of non-human primates. Gearhart notes that such experiments are already under way and that some people see them as a necessary step toward using human stem cells as treatments to replace or repair brain cells lost in conditions like Parkinson's disease or Lou Gehrig's disease.

"We agreed to disagree about whether non-human primates should be used for invasive biomedical procedures at all, and to focus instead on whether experiments with stem cells and the brain posed any new, unique ethical dilemmas," says Faden.

Although the assembled experts agreed it was unlikely that grafting human stem cells into the brains of non-human primates would alter the animals' abilities in morally relevant ways, they also felt strongly that the risk of doing so is real and too ethically important to ignore.

"Our group struggled with many fundamental
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Contact: Joanna Downer
jdowner1@jhmi.edu
410-614-5105
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions
14-Jul-2005


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