Ethics for early career stem cell researchers – are we missing a trick?

Author: David Kent, 05/31/16

EthicsWordCloud(final)Throughout the last decade, I have undertaken research in the stem cell field in two countries (Canada and the United Kingdom) and while my work has never involved the ethically contentious human embryonic stem (ES) cell lines, I have interacted with dozens of scientists whose research does involve ES cells.

If you ever ask the senior researchers in charge of a project involving human ES cells about the ethical implications of undertaking their research, they will usually refer you to a long list of regulations and a huge pile of paperwork that they have waded through to get an approval. This appears to be a robust process and the vast majority of scientists seem happy with the requirement to obtain ethical approval prior to undertaking funded research.

What dawned on me the other day, however, was that while this requirement is present at the highest levels (e.g., grant applications, senior administration, etc.), there is no such formal requirement at the junior trainee level – e.g., the people actually undertaking the research (the exception being for federally-funded training awards where there is a box to fill out).

The reason it seemed particularly curious is that for work involving animal models, training is done immediately; nobody can work with animals until they are signed off and this appears to be uniformly the case across the research world. Similarly, for work involving primary patient samples (especially those where the patient’s identity is disclosed), a process is in place in the vast majority of research centres and hospitals; for instance, the UK has a research passport system that is applied nationally.

For working with human ES cells, however, no such universal training appears to be in place so, in theory at least, you could walk into a lab as a 22-year-old research technician and be gene editing human embryonic stem cells after you get your day one safety induction.

The problem gets more complicated by not addressing the question before the research takes place. My naive assumption would be that if one undertakes an act before considering whether or not it is ethical, a person might be more inclined to think that it is alright to continue with said act or similar acts.

Here’s where I make a plea to my ethics colleagues in the stem cell field: this phenomenon (a positive reinforcement of some sort) may be at play in the case of human ES cell research. The researchers may not be asking critical questions about why they are undertaking their experiments and what the potential consequences might be. (An extreme example of such positive reinforcement would be if one grew up in a society where slavery was commonplace, the thought of whether or not slavery was ethical might never come into play.)

Obviously things are a little different in the human ES cell world since the research itself has passed some version of approval and, at least for some people on a committee somewhere, it has been considered worthwhile and “ethical.” However, the individual undertaking the research may not have appreciated the societal and ethical implications of their work and I wonder whether or not this is fair – shouldn’t the employer show some responsibility here? It is odd that we govern work with animals and patient samples quite rigidly, but we do not seem to have the same concerns with research involving human ES cell lines.

I’m not suggesting week-long training courses or anything of that ilk, but getting information into the hands of new employees who will be working on projects involving these cells, that at least some sectors of society are vehemently opposed to the creation of, seems a reasonable first step. In fact, it would probably be an incredibly good idea for all scientists to take a long hard look at their experiments and their field of research and ask, “why are we doing this? What are the potential consequences of my research?” Perhaps those are questions to tackle on another day.

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David Kent

David Kent

Principal Investigator at University of Cambridge
Dr. David Kent is a Principal Investigator at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute ( His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009. He has been writing for Signals since 2010.
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