The Science of Life

Bioethicist Speaks on Importance of One of Us Campaign

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Elisabetta Pittino of the “One of Us” Campaign interviewed Professor Justo Aznar Lucea, Doctor in Medicine from the University of Navarra and Director of the Life Sciences Institute at the Catholic University of Valencia, to learn about the scientific basis of the “One of Us” initiative.

Prof. Aznar was the Head of the Clinical Pathobiology Department of the Hospital Universitario La Fe Valencia, from 1974 until his retirement in June 2006.

He has published 507 research papers, about 300 of those in some of the most relevant scientific publications. He directed 20 doctoral theses and 30 chapters in various books.

He has received several awards including the «Alberto Sols», the «Santiago Grisolía» and the prize «Health and Society», in his first call, to the best «Career Development» of Valencia issued by the Department of Health of the Government of this region.

He is a member of the Medicine Royal Academy of Valencia.

* * *

Q: Scientifically, when does human life begin?

Prof. Aznar: There is no doubt that human life begins with fertilization of the egg by the sperm. Fertilization initiates the development and activates the division of the zygote sustaining the development of that human being live without interruption (Annex 1).

Q: We can call the embryo «One of Us» …

Prof. Aznar: After showing, in the previous question, the zygote and the early human embryo, from a biological standpoint, are living beings of our species, there is no difficulty to say that the embryo is «One of Us».

Moreover, in this struggle to defend the life of the human embryo, those who advocate that early human embryo is not a living being of our species, but a conglomeration of cells without any ontological or biological value, will have to demonstrate it is as they say, and it is something that so far nobody has being able to prove.

Q: Why, if science is so simple in showing the very beginning of human life with the conception, has the non scientific concept of a “pre-embryo” introduced and diffused?

Prof/ Aznar: The term “pre-embryo” is a semantic trick introduced by Clifford Grobstein (U.S.) in 1979 and confirmed and disseminated by the Warnock Report in 1984.

Without a doubt, the term pre-embryo is unscientific, and is solely intended to deprive human embryo, from fertilization to implantation consolidation, at about day 14 of life, its living human character, and in this how to manipulate and even destroy it without any moral responsibility. This is the only possible justification for using the term pre-embryo.

Q: What are differences between the embryo before the implantation and the embryo after the implantation? Is there any change in the humanity of the embryo? What is the difference between the embryo, the fetus, and the newborn? Are these differences substantial or not?

Prof. Aznar: There is no scientific evidence to endorse any biological differences between pre and post implanted embryo. From fertilization embryo development is continued, so to say that there are biological differences between before and after implantation is a semantic manipulation, which was proposed in the Warnock Report, expressing human life begins with gestation.. This undoubtedly led to deprive the human embryos of its biological and ontological status to manipulate them without any ethical responsibility. To hold this position is to ignore the biological reality of the human embryo and manipulate language for false purposes.

Q: What do you think about the «One of Us» campaign? Do you think it is right to ask to stop any research that Imply the destruction of human embryos?

Prof. Aznar: Of course the goal of the “One of Us” campaign is not only appropriate, but necessary.. We believe that it is not only positive for its immediate purposes, to promote a legislative initiative to prevent the manipulation and destruction of human embryos in the European Community, but also because the campaign itself is a magnificent instrument to support the defense of human life; it is needed to offer arguments that endorse this initiative when requesting people’s signatures. That is wahy we believe that an important part of this campaign is to properly train those gathering signatures, for them to be able to explain in depth the reasons that supports this request to the people.

Q: Do you think that limiting the research will open new fields?

Prof. Anzar: Certainly, when one initial scientific experience results immoral, and its lack of ethic principles recommend stopping that practice, this can stimulate to find alternatives to achieve the same benefit but ethically.

The main difference between human beings and animals is that the human is a moral being, it means that humans have to answer to the ethical implications of the actions taken, and scientists, as human beings, should respond similarly. Therefore, the negative ethical evaluation of any research activity should lead to stop it, but it also must open the door to other ethically acceptable research solutions.

A paradigmatic example of this are the experiences of Shinya Yamanaka, which led him to get cellular reprogramming and the regeneration of adult stem cells, which is why he was awarded the Noble Prize in Medicine in 2012, since his initial motivation to enter into these experiences were essentially ethical concerns.

Q: Is it right to sacrifice the life of some people to save other people?

Prof. Anzar: According to Kant’s imperative that affirms that human beings by their own dignity can never be used as a means to anything, even good, but always as an end for the actions that affect their own good, we seem to sacrifice embryos to achieve a third human benefit. Thus, it has no ethical justification.

Historically there are many previous experiences that support this claim, but I would refer to as a paradigmatic example made by Nazis with prisoners in concentration camps to experiment medical techniques that could be useful for German soldiers at war.

Q: The research on embryo stem cells, that kill many human embryos, after many years has not given any practical result … why?

Prof. Anzar: This question is not correct; first we would need to differentiate between experimental and clinical results and essentially observe that on the ethical screen.
Certainly human embryos are a useful material for biological experiments, especially related to the development of human life in its earliest stages. I mean, it is undeniable after years of research with embryonic stem cells these practices are biologically useful, but it happens that these experiences, even though useful, are always unethical.
However, from the therapeutic point of view it is true that only a few clinical trials with embryonic stem cell are underway and that on the contrary there are huge numbers, more than 3000, with adult stem cells for therapeutic purposes.

Q: Adult stem cells: yes to research? Why?

Prof Aznar: Adult stem cells are particularly useful for use in restorative and regenerative medicine, one of the most attractive therapeutic possibilities of this century in which we are.

As previously stated currently numerous clinical trials are using these cells.
Essentially we can say that adult stem cells are the cells used in clinical practice today, because both embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells are much more in an experimental phase.

Q: As a scientist, a doctor, a bioethicist, and as a teacher, do you think that in signing «One of Us», the European Citizens can help science and help Europe to come out from the crisis?

Prof. Anzar: I think that to affirm the signing of «One of Us» can help improve the crisis in Europe. However, that is if you think of the moral crisis, which surely is the foundation of all the crises, including the economic. I believe that in signing this legislative initiative, as scientists, doctors, bioethicists or teachers, may favor an in depth analysis of t
he moral crisis that exists in Europe, laying the groundwork, along with other actions, allowing us to start a new path to go out of it.

Q: So, would you appeal to your colleagues, to your students, to all the people to sign «One of Us»?

Prof. Anzar: As Director of the Institute of Life Sciences at the Catholic University of Valencia I proposed to the Board of Governors of the University to campaign to collect signatures from teachers and students to «One of Us». This campaign is underway and we have over 1500 signatures collected.

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Elisabetta Pittino

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