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Is Obfuscation Ever Helpful in Science or Ethics?

Obfuscation and science would seem to be polar opposites. The scientific method hinges upon correctly identifying what one starts with, making a single known alteration in that starting point, and then accurately determining what one ends up with. Scientific knowledge results from this process. Accidental obfuscation in that three-step process necessarily limits the knowledge that could potentially be gleaned from the method. Peer review normally identifies and corrects any obfuscation. That is its job. Such peer review can be ruthless in the case of intentional obfuscation. It should be. There is never any place for intentionally misrepresenting the starting point, the methods or the results.

Until now?

In an excellent article in Technology Review, Antonio Regalado describes the current status of research where human embryonic stem cells “can be coaxed to self-assemble into structures resembling human embryos.” The gist of the article is that the scientists involved are excited and amazed by the stem cells’ ability to self-organize into structures that closely resemble many features of the human embryo. Perhaps more importantly, per Regalado:

“…research on real human embryos is dogged by abortion politics, restricted by funding laws, and limited to supplies from IVF clinics. Now, by growing embryoids instead, scientists see a way around such limits. They are already unleashing the full suite of modern laboratory tools—gene editing, optogenetics, high-speed microscopes—in ways that let them repeat an experiment hundreds of times or, with genetic wizardry, ask a thousand questions at once.”

This blog has reported on Synthetic Human Entities with Embryo-like Features (SHEEFs) before (see HERE and HERE for starters). The problem from a bioethical standpoint is this: is what we are experimenting upon human, and thus deserving protections as to the type of research permitted that we presently give to other human embryos? Answering that ethical question honestly and openly seems to be a necessary starting point.

Enter the obfuscation. Consider just the following three comments from some of the researchers in the article:

When the team published its findings in early August, they went mostly unnoticed. That is perhaps because the scientists carefully picked their words, straining to avoid comparisons to embryos. [One researcher] even took to using the term ‘asymmetric cyst’ to describe the [amniotic cavity-like structure] that had so surprised the team. “We have to be careful using the term synthetic human embryo, because some people are not happy about it,” says [University of Michigan professor and lab director Jianping] Fu.

“I think that they should design experiments to focus on specific questions, and not model everything,” says Insoo Hyun, professor and ethicist at Case Western University. “My proposal is, just don’t make the whole thing. One team can make the engine, another the wheels. The less ambiguous morally the thing is that you are making, the more likely you can do your research unimpeded.”

“When Shao presented the group’s work this year, he added to his slides an ethics statement outlined in a bright yellow box, saying the embryoids ‘do not have human organismal form or potential.’”

This last comment seems to contradict the very emphasis of the linked article. As Regalado nicely points out: “The whole point of the structures is the surprising, self-directed, even organismal way they develop.”

Honestly, at this point, most are struggling to understand whether or not the altered stem cells have human organismal form or potential. I suspect everyone thinks they must or else researchers would not be so excited to continue this research. The value of the research increases the closer a SHEEF gets to being human. If our techniques improve, at what point does a SHEEF have the right to develop as any other normal embryo? Said differently, given their potential, and particularly as our techniques improve, is it right to create a SHEEF to be just the engine or the wheel?

Having scientists carefully picking their words and straining to avoid comparisons is not what scientists should ever be doing. Doing so obfuscates both science and ethics. Does anyone really think that is a good thing?

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