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The Case of Eric, Lou Gehrig's Disease, and Stem Cell Research


Elizabeth R. McCain
Biology Department
Muhlenberg College


Thirty-one-year-old Eric has begun to show signs of the debilitating and fatal neuromuscular disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Students follow Eric as he is examined by his physician and then a specialist, undergoes a series of tests, and eventually is given the devastating prognosis. He is also given the news that a group of prominent scientists has begun human trials with embryonic stem cell therapy, which may offer a possible cure for his condition, and that he can participate in the experiment if he wishes. Students research and then prepare oral presentations on the perspectives of a variety of experts Eric might wish to consult as he weighs the science and ethics of his decision.


  • Learn about the two methods for isolating human embryonic/fetal stem cells: embryonic germ (EG) and embryonic stem (ES) cells.
  • Understand the basic theory behind how ES or EG cells could be used to treat a disease like ALS.
  • Gain knowledge of ALS, its pathology, and prognosis.
  • Gather data from scientific sources and public information on embryonic stem cell therapy and research.
  • Understand past and present politics (including research regulation and funding) of embryonic stem cell therapy.
  • Understand what religious leaders, present Republican politicians, ALS experts, and stem cell scientists think about the ethics of embryonic stem cell research.
  • Realize that some recent advances with rats (by the Gearhart lab) have made stem cell therapy for ALS patients more of a reality.
  • Clearly express a position on a scientific ethical topic in a short oral presentation using PowerPoint and a short paper.


Stem cell research; embryonic stem cell; embryonic germ cell; primordial germ cell; pluripotent stem cell; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS); Lou Gehrig disease; neuromuscular disease; bioethics; George W. Bush

Topical Areas

Ethics, Policy issues, Social issues

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division



Type / Methods

Dilemma/Decision, Role-Play, Journal Article, Student Presentations



Subject Headings

Biology (General)  |   Cell Biology  |   Biotechnology  |  

Date Posted


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Laura Hoopes
Department of Biology
Pomona College
Claremont, CA 91711
This case has students prepare to simulate a hearing on possible treatment of Eric for his ALS using stem cells. Since he is Catholic, there is a religious dimension to consider. It includes good witnesses such as James Thompson, John Gearhart, and Leon Kass. I find it very helpful for non-majors classes in stem cells and human cloning. It isn’t quite up to date, though, having been prepared in 2005.


I have added some characters:

  • Shinyu Yamanaka, who in 2007 was able to reprogram skin cells to pluripotency.
  • Elizabeth Blackburn, the scientist Bush fired from his ethics committee.
  • Jonathan Moreno, Obama’s organizer of his Bioethics Committee.

New References

I like to have the students do this case while they are reading Christopher Scott’s book Stem Cells Now: From the Experiment That Shook the World to the New Politics of Life (Pi Press, 2006) and papers updating it.

I also like to use Potent Biology, the videos produced by HHMI on stem cells, which are available for free from the HHMI web site.

Also the following articles:

  • The Yamanaka paper: Takahashi, K., Tanabe, K., Ohnuki, M., Narita, M., Ichisaka, T., Tomoda, K., and Yamanaka, S. 2007. Induction of pluripotent stem cells from adult human fibroblasts by defined factors. Cell 131(5):861–72. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2007.11.019
  • Ethical issues re iPS cells: Insoo, Hyun. 2008. Stem cells from skin cells: the ethical questions. Hastings Center Report 38, no. 1:20–22.