February 19, 2013 | Posted By Lisa Campo-Engelstein, PhD

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment (DWA) was passed in 1996 and prevents federal funding of research that destroys embryos. This congressional prohibition defines a human embryo as “any organism not protected as a human subject” that was “derived by fertilization, parthenogenesis, or any other means from one or more human gametes.” While there has been much debate in the bioethics and popular press media about the ethics of embryo research, what has been almost entirely overlooked is the ethics of parthenote research.

The DWA conflates embryos and parthenotes even though there are important scientific and ethical differences between them. Parthenotes are cells derived by parthenogenesis, the process in which eggs become activated to begin dividing without fertilization. Because there is no sperm involvement, parthenotes contain genetic material from only one source (i.e. the egg). In contrast, embryos are created through fertilization and contain genetic material from two genetically dissimilar cells (i.e. egg and sperm). Another important difference is that while embryos can result in a live birth baby, human parthenotes cannot. Human parthenotes, whether they come into existence naturally or in a lab, die in the early stages of development. Scientists can create human parthenotes in the lab by activating eggs through chemical stimuli that mimic fertilization, but studies in other mammals indicate that, without the required genetic imprinting, further development is ruled out.

Parthenotes can play an important role in various types of research. For example, parthenotes could be used to study fertility preservation options for girls and young women whose cancer treatment may render them infertile. Parthenotes are also useful to study cancer and benign gonadal tumors, which are sometimes caused by spontaneous egg activation.  For instance, ovarian teratomas are believed to occur from spontaneous parthenogenesis of eggs and represent the most common pediatric ovarian tumor. Studying the process of early egg activation could disclose what goes awry in these tumors.

Research using parthenotes avoids many ethical concerns raised by embryo research because, according to a variety of criteria, parthenotes are less likely than embryos to be classified as persons or as deserving the same level of moral status. For example, one of the most conservative definitions for the beginning of human life is the moment of fertilization. Because parthenotes have not been fertilized, this definition precludes their personhood. Others have argued that it is not fertilization that is the key to personhood but rather what occurs at fertilization: the emergence of a unique genetic code. However, parthenotes are genetically identical to the egg from which they formed. Some who do not believe embryos constitute persons may still object to using them for research because of their potential to become persons. Yet, as previously mentioned, parthenotes have limited potential and do not survive past an early phase of development.

In sum, the DWA’s conflation of embryos and parthenotes is not only scientifically inaccurate, but it also prevents important research from occurring that many find ethically acceptable, or at least less ethically troubling, that embryo research. 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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