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Academic Freedom and Ethical Limits

July-August 2004

New technologies create controversy. They challenge our thinking, leading to debate and concern. When recombinant DNA was discovered, the city of Cambridge banned all work with the new technology. Already, human embryonic stem-cell research has compelled a group of Harvard alumni, students, faculty, and staff members to write to Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers, protesting research that destroys "nascent human life."

Because human embryonic stem-cell research raises ethical issues, University provost Steven E. Hyman has created a new committee chaired by Cabot professor of biology Richard Losick, charged exclusively with reviewing such research. "We really have to be thinking very deeply about the ethical implications of the new science and the new medicine," says Hyman.

"Our starting point is academic freedom," says Losick — "that a professor has the prerogative to pursue lines of research that may be controversial or unpopular." But professors are not free to pursue any kind of research they may be interested in. Research involving human subjects, for example, faces scrutiny by the internal review board of the institution where it is carried out.

What standards come into play? "Our goal," says Losick, "is to review the research to see if something being proposed would clearly fall in a realm many people would agree is unethical." It is not "the committee's mandate to try and weigh [societal] benefits against the ethics of the science. Universities allow controversial research without regard to whether or not it will prove [beneficial] to society. It's the nature of basic research that we often don't know if it will turn out to have an impact that will benefit society or not, so it's a freedom of inquiry issue."

In that spirit, the committee has approved experimental cloning for biomedical research that involves growing embryonic stem cells both in vitro and in a host embryo such as a chicken, in order to observe how the cells differentiate in response to molecular signals, which are highly conserved across species. "We talked quite a bit about that," Losick notes. "In the end, we decided that the possibility [of creating] a chimeric chicken [with] a human brain — you know, Chicken Little, so to speak — was so remote that this wasn't a reason to prohibit the experiments."

Stem-Cell Science:

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Debating the Moral Status of the Embryo

At the other extreme, says Losick, "Suppose someone proposed taking a chimpanzee, which is much more closely related to a human being than a chicken is, and creating a chimera in which human embryonic stem cells were introduced into an early stage of development of the chimp, and some of those cells found their way into the brain of the adult chimp that arose from this hybrid embryo. Suppose 1 percent of the neurons in the chimp were of human origin, would that raise significant ethical issues? If everyone agreed that 1 percent didn't, well, what if it was 30 percent? What if it was 51 percent? You can imagine a wide range of activities, some of which the committee feels are appropriate kinds of experiments to go on at a university, and other extremes that raise deep ethical issues that would require much discussion and very well may not be appropriate."