New Stem-Cell Discovery Stirs New Ethical Questions

“As biological research races forward, ethical quandaries are piling up. In a report published Tuesday in the journal eLife, researchers at Harvard Medical School said it was time to ponder a startling new prospect: synthetic embryos. In recent years, scientists have moved beyond in vitro fertilization. They are starting to assemble stem cells that can organize themselves into embryo like structures.Whatever else, it is sure to unnerve most of us.” by C. Zimmer, The New York Times

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

Biological landscape of embryos and Synthetic human entities with embryonic features (SHEEFs) in relation to moral status. image-elife

Excerpt: A New Form of Stem-Cell Engineering Raises Ethical Questions, by Carl Zimmer, The New York Times 

“Soon, experts predict, they will learn how to engineer these cells into new kinds of tissues and organs. Eventually, they may take on features of a mature human being. In the report, John D. Aach and his colleagues explored the ethics of creating what they call ‘synthetic human entities with embryolike features’ — Sheefs, for short. For now, the most advanced Sheefs are very simple assemblies of cells. But in the future, they may develop into far more complex forms, the researchers said, such as a beating human heart connected to a rudimentary brain, all created from stem cells.

Established guidelines for human embryo research are useless for deciding which Sheefs will be acceptable and which not, Dr. Aach argued. Before scientists get too deeply into making Sheefs, some rules must be put in place. Dr. Aach and his colleagues urged that certain features be kept off limits: Scientists, for example, should never create a Sheef that feels pain…Scientists began grappling with the ethics of lab-raised embryos more than four decades ago.

Photo- The stem cell blog

In 1970, the physiologist Robert G. Edwards and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge announced they had been able to fertilize human eggs with sperm and keep them alive for two days in a petri dish. During that time, the embryos each divided into 16 cells. In 1979, a federal advisory board recommended that the cutoff should be 14 days…Adherence to the 14-day rule led to tremendous advances. For decades, scientists did not break the 14-day rule — but only because they did not know how. But last year, two teams of scientists determined how to grow human embryos for 13 days. Those advances hinted that it might be possible to allow scientists to tack on a few days more, by changing the 14-day rule to, say, a 20-day rule… A hint of the future arrived in a study published this month by researchers at the University of Cambridge.

They built microscopic scaffolding into which they injected a mixture of two types of embryonic stem cells from mice. While these artificial embryos developed from embryonic stem cells, it may soon become possible to build them from reprogrammed adult human cells. No fertilization or ordinary embryonic development would be required to build a mouse Sheef. Henry T. Greely of Stanford University was less optimistic. While it is important to have a discussion about Sheefs, he said, it may be hard to reach an agreement on limits as enforceable as the 14-day rule. Even if ethicists do manage to agree on certain limits, Paul S. Knoepfler, a stem cell biologist at the University of California, wondered how easy it would be for scientists to know if they had crossed them.”

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article
with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

I. Pre-Reading Activities

Stimulating background knowledge: Brainstorming

Directions: Place students in groups, ask students to think about what they already know about  the topic of stem-cell research.  Next, have students look at the photos in the text and generate ideas or words that may be connected to the article. Debrief as a class and list these ideas on the board. Students can use a brainstorming chart for assistance.

G. Cluster Brainstorming-workshopexercises


II. While Reading Activities

Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. Some experts predict cell engineering will cause trouble.
  2. What are the ethics of creating synthetic human entities?
  3. They may develop into far more complex forms.
  4. Scientists might be able to test out drugs for diseases such as cancer or diabetes.
  5. There has to be guidelines for human embryo research.
  6. Scientists began grappling with the ethics of lab-raised embryos.
  7. Adherence to the 14-day rule led to tremendous advances.
  8. Some scientists were optimistic.
  9. Other kinds of research such as cloning could be studied.
  10. Spotting a primitive streak is easy.

ELLteaching 2.0 vocabualry chart


Reading Comprehension

Word -Recognition

Directions: Students choose the correct word to complete the sentences taken from the article. They are to choose from the options presented.

Dr. Edwards won the Nobel Prize in 2010 for his reset/research, which opened the door to in vitro fertilization/fertilize. The discovery/discover also made it possible to study the early/earliest moments of human/humane development. Governments around the world/worldly began deliberating over how length/long research laboratories and fertility clinics/clinic should be allowed to let these embryos grow. The so-called 14-day rule came to be embraced/embody not just by scientists in the United States but in other countries as well.

 Grammar Focus: Prepositions

Directions: The following sentences are from the news article.  For each sentence choose the correct preposition from the choices listed. Note that not all prepositions listed are in the article.

Prepositions:  in, for, of, with, by,  on, at, to, as, into, across, around, over,  through, from, during, up, off,

Experts predict, they will learn how___engineer these cells ___new kinds ___tissues and organs.

___the future, they may develop___ far more complex forms.

Such ___a beating human heart connected ___a rudimentary brain, all created ___stem cells.

Adherence ___the 14-day rule led___ tremendous advances.

Each ___those germ layers goes ___  ___produce all the body’s tissues and organs.

III. Post Reading Activities

WH-How Questions

Directions: Have students use the  WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.

Who or What is the article about?

Where does the action/event take place?

When does the action/event take place?

Why did the action/event occur?

How did the action/event occur?

Group Debates

Directions: After reading the article, place students in groups and  have each group choose one side of the following debate:  For or Against the New Form of Stem-Cell Engineering. Allow groups to develop their arguments and conclude with a class discussion.

1-Minute Free Writing Exercise

Directions: Allow students 1 minute to write down one new idea they’ve learned from the reading. Ask them to write down one thing they did not understand in the reading.  Review the responses as a class. Note: For the lower levels allow more time for this writing activity.


Category: Science, Social Issues