Using Tissue Samples to Make Genetic Offspring after Death

By Yu-Chi Lyra Kuo

Last month, John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka were jointly awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for Medicine for their research on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).  iPSCs are capturing the public imagination as embryonic stem cells did fifteen years ago, but without the controversy surrounding the destruction of embryos: iPSCs can be garnered instead from living somatic tissue of an organism at any point in its lifespan–even late adulthood.  Yamanaka’s research has shown that somatic cells can be “reprogrammed” to develop into any kind of cell–including an embryo–speaking to the vast research potential of iPSCs.

In light of the research potential of iPSCs, I wanted to highlight the results of a remarkable study (published last month) where scientists induced iPSCs from mice into primordial germ cell-like cells, and aggregated them with female somatic cells to create mature, germinal oocytes. The team was then able to show that these oocytes, after in vitro fertilization, yield fertile offspring. Essentially, the research team created viable mouse embryos from skin cells, and fertilized them using IVF to produce healthy mice, some of which have already produced offspring of their own.

If this process could be replicated with other species to create healthy offspring, the theoretical benefits for treating infertility in humans as well as for reviving near-extinct animal species for study are potentially enormous and important, especially given the comparative scarity of oocytes in nature.

Yet, I’m still in a festive Hallowe’en mood (and in light of my interest in emergent technologies’ impact on death/life extension and its normative implications), I could not help but bring to your attention to a study in which inducible pluripotent stem cells were able to be extracted from bodies weeks after death.  The two studies together suggest the theoretical possibility of taking any somatic tissue sample with still-living cells from a person, live or dead, to create their offspring.

Given that it is generally easier to steal an ordinary tissue sample from someone than an embryo, egg, or sperm, the practical importance of whether one has a right not to be a genetic parent  is much amplified by the possibility of using ordinary tissue sample to produce one’s genetic child.

Posthumous pluripotent cell study introduces an interesting variation on this question: do we have a right (or continue to have a right) not to be a genetic parent after death?  If any, what are the constraints (including time limits) on the existence of such a right?  Would the two rights (living and posthumous) be separately grounded and (as it seems to me) more intelligible when disaggregated?  If justification for the right not to be a genetic parent relies in part on a conception of harm experienced only while one is alive, the notion of a relevant posthumous right may be justified on quite different grounds.  One popular related question asks whether we can be harmed after death at all.  And, of course, there are many other routes to arguing for or against a posthumous right not to be a genetic parent aside from the issue of harm.

If a relatively easy-to-obtain tissue sample with living cells is all that is theoretically needed from a dead body to make a genetic child, a vast array of scenarios abound that bring additional pressure to answer whether and under what constraints one can possess a posthumous right not to be a genetic parent.  One intriguing scenario springs to my mind: whether deceased organ donors hold any such posthumous right against their organ recipient(s).  The organ recipient now possesses the donated organ in her own body and could conceivably extract a tissue sample from the organ to produce the deceased donor’s genetic child.  Does the deceased organ donor hold a right not to be a genetic parent against the living organ recipient?

Thanks for reading!  -YK

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One thought on “Using Tissue Samples to Make Genetic Offspring after Death

  1. Great post Yu-Chi. One interesting question it raises is whether the concept of “parenthood” is unique to the coital or other sperm + egg methods of combination as opposed to potential IPS cell transformations. Perhaps the relationship between skin cell provider and child made through IPS transformation is like cloned to clone more than parent to child? This might be relevant in that in the article of mine you reference I suggest the strongest argument for respecting a right not to be a genetic parent is about attributions of parenthood, and if those attributions do not occur one might think the right is problematic as well.

    Somewhat further afield from your post there is an interesting question of what this potential for IPS cells does for the argument that they are more ethical to use than Embryonic Stem Cells for those who oppose hESC research on the grounds they are persons based on potentiality arguments. There is a forthcoming article in the American Journal of Bioethics (on which I will have a peer commentary with Eli Adashi and Jonathan Will which I may blog about when it is out) suggesting that this might serve as a reductio of the potentiality argument, or at least problematize it.

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