February 8, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Stem Cell Research Launches into the Ethical Unknown, Full Steam Ahead

No one knows where stem cell research will lead.  Some hope for miracle cures.  Some fear horrendous abuses and ethical nightmares.  But states and nations, apparently more concerned over priority and prestige, are fighting to the head of the pack after the California Proposition 71 gun fired last fall.
    With $3 billion in taxpayer loans at their disposal, the stealthily-named new California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is beginning to take shape, apparently unconcerned that “the debate has shifted from ethics and costs to how the enterprise will operate,” wrote Constance Holden in the 14 January issue of Science.1  In last week’s issue,2 she added that Prop. 71 has had a “seismic effect” on other states.  “Wait for me!” seems to be the attitude of Wisconsin, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland and Illinois, while other states are trying to ban research on stem cells (Science Now reports that governor Mitt Romney is trying to stop the advance in Massachusetts).  The rivalry for stem cell funding is having a major shakeup on the role of the National Institutes of Health, comparable to the “breakup of the Roman Empire,” Holden writes. 
    Much of the hurry comes from a desire to beat the Asians, wrote Dennis Normile and Charles C. Mann in the same issue last week.3  “Less encumbered by societal restrictions on embryonic stem cells,” they remarked, “scientists in the developing countries of Asia are giving Western researchers a run for their money.”  In Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China – indeed, across all Asia – “there is little of the conflict with prevailing religious and ethical beliefs that has Western countries hesitating.”  No one seems to be asking whether to do it, but only how to do it.  The mood in Asia is described by Normile and Mann:

Governments are ramping up funding for both basic and applied stem cell work, setting up new institutes, programs, and grant schemes, and providing incentives for private companies to join the effort.  Giving these efforts a further boost, the region also has legions of lab workers willing to log long hours, and increasing numbers of expatriate scientists are returning home to work in the flourishing environment.

With that kind of money and competition driving stem cell research, the concerns of a few ethicists are unlikely to be given the time of day.  Although some of these enterprises specifically ban human cloning, the creator of Dolly the sheep, Ian Wilmut (Kings College, London) has been granted a license in the UK to clone early stage human embryos for medical research, reports the BBC News.  “Those opposed to the research said the work is unethical, unnecessary and a step toward full blown human cloning,” the article says, and the ProLife Alliance stated emphatically, “All human cloning is intrinsically wrong and should be outlawed.”  But it’s hard to beat the emotional appeal of proponents who argue that the procedure might help cure motor neuron disease.  Meanwhile, other possible nightmare scenarios with the new biotechnology make occasional headlines, like this debate over human-animal hybrids in National Geographic News.  The technology is outpacing any consensus on where to draw the line.
    Ongoing successes with adult stem cells, which have no ethical problems, are getting drowned out in the fanfare over embryonic stem cells.  EurekAlert reported that a new source of stem cells in umbilical cord blood shows promise for bone marrow transplants and tissue repair, for instance, and Nature Science Update just reported that in heart tissue, long thought irreplaceable, certain “cardiac progenitor cells” are capable in fact of regrowing heart muscle, promising hope for heart-attack survivors.  A heart-warming yet heart-breaking report in World Magazine Feb. 5 describes near-miraculous cures being made with adult stem cells; trouble is, such proven advances are being passed over in the rush to fund embryonic stem cell research.  “The NIH, which bankrolls innovative medical research in the United States, has funded only 30 projects involving stem cells from umbilical cords,” reports Lynde Langdon.  “In contrast, it has funded 634 projects involving embryonic stem cells.”  This lopsided funding of embryonic stem cell research has yet to show one successful medical benefit.

1Constance Holden, “California’s Bold $3 Billion Initiative Hits the Ground Running,” Science, Vol 307, Issue 5707, 195 , 14 January 2005, [DOI: 10.1126/science.307.5707.195].
2Constance Holden, “U.S. States Offer Asia Stiff Competition,” Science, Vol 307, Issue 5710, 662-663 , 4 February 2005, [DOI: 10.1126/science.307.5710.662].
3Dennis Normile and Charles C. Mann, “Asia Jockeys for Stem Cell Lead,” Science, Vol 307, Issue 5710, 660-664 , 4 February 2005, [DOI: 10.1126/science.307.5710.660].

If you thought abortion was bad, and should have been stopped at the starting gate, wait till you see what the mad scientists might do with their latest tinker toys, genetically modified human embryos.  What started as moral compassion for poor women in the early debates over abortion has turned into a multibillion dollar industry, replete with lawyers and SIGs who fight any attempt to restrict their business, as concerned citizens gasp at bags full of unborn babies in trash bins, and senators investigate black markets for body parts.  How many of you believe that, this time, the proponents of this new crusade really have the interests of the suffering in mind?  Oh – and which religious tradition, did they say, is the only one “hesitating” at the sight of the leaking dike?
How will we explain this to our children?  Will they even care?

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Categories: Politics and Ethics

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