Bioethics Today Series: Parthenotes: Overlooked in the Ethics of Embryo Research Debate

We're delighted to begin a new series highlighting reproductive medicine blog posts written by Lisa Campo-Engelstein, PhD, from the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College for BIOETHICS TODAY.  Dr. Campo-Engelstein's main research areas include reproductive ethics (particularly contraception, oncofertility, birth, and embry and parthenote research), gender and medicine, cancer ethics, and international bioethics (especially Costa Rica).  

BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.

Parthenotes: Overlooked in the Ethics of Embryo Research Debate

Author: Lisa Campo-Engelstein, PhD

BIOETHICS TODAY, February 19, 2013

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 entierly overlooked is the ethics of parthenote research.

The DWA conflates embryos and parthenotes even though there are important specific 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 the 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.