October 21, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Scientific Supporters of ES Stem Cell Research Fear Future Abuses

“How would you know if a human brain was trapped in a mouse’s body?”  This frightful and intriguing question opened an article in Nature this week.1  More on that in a minute.
    Last week, in the Oct. 14 issue,2 a Nature editorial on California’s Stem Cell Proposition 71 stated that “the proposal is less of an unalloyed blessing than it seems.”  Though most professional scientists are eager for funds to test embryonic stem cells, Nature feared that the proposition goes overboard.  It amends the state constitution, threatens a state economy that is near insolvency, and promises it will pay for itself, “But it is not clear that these analyses hold water.”  Worst of all, it prevents oversight by the state legislature, expecting the researchers to police themselves.  Surprisingly, Nature supports government oversight of scientific funding.  The NIH and NSF at the federal level, which operate under the scrutiny of Congress, perform a healthy role: “At these agencies, scientific merit is judged almost entirely by the community itself, but Congress ultimately ensures that the public good is paramount.”  No such policing comes with Prop. 71, however, and the money trail looks too tempting:

Proposition 71, in contrast, would introduce a new model for the support of scientific research at the state level that would rely on mere transparency as a guarantee against abuse.  Although public meetings are promised, the oversight committee would consist mainly of people with close ties to the universities, institutes and companies that stand to benefit from the money spent.  Most of the rest are representatives of disease groups.  The committee makes the ultimate funding decisions and will be allowed to modify NIH rules of informed consent and human-subject protection as it sees fit.
    The advocacy of such people as the actor Christopher Reeve – whose untimely death this week deprives biomedical research of one of its most forceful and effective lobbyists – has helped to elevate the promise of embryonic-stem-cell research, sometimes to unrealistic levels.  It is up to the people of California whether they want to approve Proposition 71.  But if they do, researchers must strive to ensure that no funds will be abused, and they must give full consideration to a wide array of ethical concerns.  Anything less risks damaging public trust in science.

Yet how effective can self-policing by researchers be, when the temptations for grant money, prizes and lucrative pharmaceutical contracts threaten to make ethics take a back seat?  This was the subject of the editorials this week in Nature1 and Science3 about feeble first attempts in Washington to decide what is right or wrong.  The lack of clear guidelines on stem cell research occasioned the question about human brain cells in mice: how would anyone know?  If the researcher feels he has to experiment with chimeras (see BreakPoint commentary) to find a cure, on what basis will the scientific community claim it is unethical, and how could they stop it?
    Erika Check wrote about prominent biologists debating such questions just in the last few days at the US National Academies, now that California’s Prop. 71 is already on the ballot and appears poised for an easy win, especially since the state’s popular governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has endorsed it along with Michael J. Fox and other celebrities.  Since no clear guidelines exist, and no federal policies have the force of law, the scientists have a free rein to create their own consensus about what is ethical.  The vacuum has allowed some already to charge ahead into areas that are blurring the line between human and animal:

Researchers at the meeting agreed on a lot: that the use of human embryonic stem cells to produce a baby should be banned, for example, and that stem-cell researchers should adopt guidelines to reassure the public that their work is ethically sound.  But they differed on how to handle chimaeras, which mix cells and DNA from different species….
    Scientists could even construct a mouse whose entire brain was made of human-derived cells….

The article quotes Irving Weissman of Stanford who is already creating human-mouse chimeras with private funds.  Weissman claims the “yuck factor” is no reason to ban such research.  The fact that the government so far has not taken the lead in establishing guidelines puts the burden on the scientists themselves, but is this the fox guarding the henhouse?  “That leaves a hole for scientists, who are not sure what the law permits them to do, and lack guidance on their work’s impact on public opinion.”  How, then, can they “reassure the public that their work is ethically sound?”
    Speaking for Science,3 Constance Holden provided more details on the meeting of scientists last week in Washington, DC.  The scientists seemed to agree on little more than the need for guidelines.  They admitted that there is no clear distinction between “stem cell research” and “cloning” even among biotech investors, though the public is usually reassured that cloning is bad.  And they could not answer such basic questions as, “what does it mean to accord an early embryo ‘respect’?”  It didn’t help to hear a legal expert confide, “much assisted reproduction is human experimentation in the name of treatment.”  The potential for deceiving a gullible public appears more powerful than ethical concerns, especially from the so-called religious right (see 09/27/2004 headline). 
EurekAlert reported that the UN is also considering talks about the ethics of therapeutic cloning, as ES stem cell research is called.  Dr. Gerald Schatten (U. of Pittsburgh) argues research first, ethics later as he admits that ES stem cells have no track record: “Will therapeutic cloning create immune matching?  It’s unclear.  At this point, we don’t even know if human embryonic stem cells are safe, let alone effective.  What’s important is that research be allowed to continue so we can find out.
    The bottom line: the race toward this potentially lucrative technology by states and other countries seems to be outpacing concerns about ethics, even though there is no evidence ES stem cells will cure anything (while adult stem cells already have plenty).  Now that they are on the verge of getting their way, the scientists are having one last twinge of conscience before charging full steam ahead.


1Erica Check, “Biologists seek consensus on guidelines for stem-cell research,” Nature 431, 885 (21 October 2004); doi:10.1038/431885a.
2Editorials: “California dreaming,” Nature 431, 723 (14 October 2004); doi:10.1038/431723a
3Constance Holden, “Bioethics: Stem Cell Researchers Mull Ideas for Self-Regulation,” Science, Vol 306, Issue 5696, 586, 22 October 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.306.5696.586].

If anyone should have a voice in the ethics of stem cell research, it should be Joni Eareckson Tada, the advocate for the disabled who has spent the last 37 years in a wheelchair herself.  She has done far more than the TV celebrities to help the afflicted.  Her organization “Joni and Friends” has supplied over 25,000 wheelchairs to the disabled poor in Africa and other third world countries.  Moreover, she could certainly be expected to look with hope over any therapies that might allow her to walk again.  Yet she remains a staunch opponent of embryonic stem cell research, for good reasons, as explained on the bioethics page of her website JoniAndFrends.org.
    Joni has appeared on radio talk shows and TV interviews, such as in a debate last week on Faith Under Fire.  The clarity of her logic is unimpeachable.  Yet it is unlikely that she can overcome the tear-jerking, emotional commercials by celebrity actors that tug at the heartstrings with empty promises that embryonic stem cells might cure your grandmother of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, despite no track record and many problems (while adult stem cells are flourishing: for another example, see EurekAlert report this week about skin cells fighting brain tumors).  Meanwhile, beneficiaries of Prop. 71 stand to make a killing on taxpayer funds.  Follow the money trail: why don’t private investors support ES stem cell research?  Yet the taxpayers are going to have to foot the bill for a possible boondoggle that may take decades to show any results– maybe never, while a class of human beings will be created to be destroyed for scientific research (a good time to re-read John Durkin’s letter; see 09/03/2004 headline).  Since California voters never seem to find a bond issue they didn’t like, even when living in a state climbing out of near bankruptcy, the world is staged to see the next chapter in our brave new world opening on November 2.  Maybe the scientists will figure out how to be “ethical” while they’re laughing on the way to the bank.

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Categories: Politics and Ethics

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