Public Testimony at the Release of the Do Not Harm Founding Statement by Frank Young, MD, PhD

Date: 07/01/1999

July 1, 1999

Throughout my scientific career as a molecular geneticist, ethics and science have been mutual concerns. At the Asilomar Conference, when 150 scientists from 18 nations gathered to first debate the safety of recombinant DNA technology (rDNA), we also considered the ethics of the research. Careful attention to both safety and scientific inquiry was incorporated into the NIH Guidelines at that time. As a member of the first Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, I participated in deliberation on the development of this technology and was keenly aware that public confidence in this new field of biotechnology was imperative. This rDNA research using microbes and animal cells to produce medicines led to the establishment of the new biotechnology industry. I participated in recombinant DNA research for many years, in policy deliberations on implementation of guidelines for conduct of rDNA research, and, as the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, led in the development of regulations nationally and internationally.

Today, we are considering embarking on an equally significant revolution in cellular biology. The use of stem cells to produce tissues such as blood vessels, brain cells and heart cells could result in the partial regeneration of organs. Unlike the development of biotechnology, which uses bacteria, yeast and adult tissue culture cells to produce products, the NIH proposes to fund research on stem cells obtained through disintegration of human embryos. Rather than supporting the public funding of this research with embryonic stem cell lines derived by private industry, I contend that killing embryos by disintegration to harvest stem cells is illegal, immoral, and unnecessary. Obtaining stem cells through the harvest of embryonic cells requires the destruction of vulnerable embryos for only potential medical benefits. Although I remain a steadfast supporter of the advances in rDNA technology in particular and scientific research in general, I am compelled to speak out against this violation of human dignity. The attempt by the National Institutes of Health to enable embryo research by defining the pre-implanted embryo as a pre-embryo is a crass and, in my opinion, an illegal parsing of Congressional intent. It is just this pre-implanted human embryo that is introduced into the human uterus during in vitro fertilization.

Our Declaration of Independence states that ” we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Throughout American history, our Nation has striven to protect the vulnerable. The Americans with Disabilities Act, our efforts in Kosovo, and the recent Clinton Administration’s Conference on Mental Health are contemporary examples of our National commitment in this regard.

Because stem cells can be obtained from adults, the use of embryonic stem cells is likely to be unnecessary. Accordingly, I recommend that these research efforts on stem cells derived from adults be redoubled to perfect such cell lines. This research to obtain and develop adult derived stem cells is very promising and exciting. Many people could be helped, and these patients would likely prefer to use the more ethical procedures of deriving stem cells from adults instead of sacrificing embryos. A recent article in Scientific American (T. Beardsley, Scientific American pg.30-31, July 1999) noted a focus on the development of stem cells from adult cells to avoid ethical concerns. It is not unlikely that pharmaceutical companies and their stock holders would select stem cells from adults rather than embryos for investment of the hundreds of millions of dollars required for a new medicine. Corporate ethics is a cherished ideal!

News of past promising avenues of research has been followed in many instances by the bones of failure. Stem cells do offer many advantages for therapy. However, rather than sacrificing human embryos for the potential utilitarian benefit of the living, we should instead develop and evaluate adult stem cell technology. If our society chooses to kill and disintegrate embryos, we are compelled to reflect on the question of where this path leads. Is this the beginning of a new eugenics? Are the disabled and those with Alzheimer’s disease the next to be sacrificed? Is this path one that leads to an imperative to preserve the life of people with disease at the expense of the vulnerable? Now is the time to pause in order to ensure that our ethical standards befit our democratic principles of equal opportunity and civil rights. Now is the time to focus on the alternative technology of adult stem cell therapy. To do less, in my opinion, is a betrayal of the public trust of science that is supported by taxpayer dollars.


Frank E. Young, M.D., Ph.D. – Dr. Young has served in a variety of governmental positions, including Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (1984-89), Commissioner on the World Health Organization’s Commission on Health and Environment (1990), and Assistant Surgeon General (Rear Admiral, upper half) of the Department of Health and Human Services (1984). He is the former Dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Rochester and is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Church Alliance.

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