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Can we develop ethically universal embryonic stem-cell lines?


Human embryonic stem-cell (hESC) research faces opposition from those who object to the destruction of human embryos. Over the past few years, a series of new approaches have been proposed for deriving hESC lines without injuring a living embryo. Each of these presents scientific challenges and raises ethical and political questions. Do any of these methods have the potential to provide a source of hESCs that will be acceptable to those who oppose the current approaches?

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Figure 1: Approaches to generating human embryonic stem cells (hESCs).


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I dedicate this to the memory of J. Cohen. His commitment to ethics at Dartmouth College made possible the research that underlies this discussion.

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Adult stem cell

An undifferentiated cell that exists among differentiated cells in a tissue or organ, and that can renew itself and differentiate to yield the main specialized cell types of that tissue or organ.


The presence of extra copies, or fewer copies, of some chromosomes.


A preimplantation embryo that contains a fluid-filled cavity called a blastocoel.


A cell that results from embryonic cleavage.

Inner cell mass

A small group of undifferentiated cells that are present in the blastocyst.

Major histocompatibility complex

A group of genes in mammals that help determine the histocompatibility antigens that are found on cell surfaces and that modulate immune responses.

Paternal imprinting

The selective switching on or off of genes caused by factors that are inherited from the paternal chromosomes.


Able to give rise to a range of, but not all, cell lineages (usually all fetal lineages and a subset of extraembryonic lineages).

Somatic-cell nuclear transfer

The process by which the nucleus from an adult cell is transferred into a previously enucleated egg cell; the reconstructed oocyte is then activated, which initiates subsequent development.


The capacity of an undifferentiated cell to develop into any type of cell.


An extraembryonic lineage that is derived from the trophectoderm of the blastocyst, which gives rise to the fetal portion of the placenta.

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Green, R. Can we develop ethically universal embryonic stem-cell lines?. Nat Rev Genet 8, 480–485 (2007).

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