September 26, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

Stem-Cell Advocates Try to Shield Ethical Concerns

Would an embryonic stem cell by another name cease being human?  Several recent articles on embryonic stem cells are going beyond just touting the potential cures from the controversial research, which involves creating and destroying a human embryo.  Some are blurring the line between embryonic and adult stem cells (cf. 12/02/2006) and attempting to avoid ethically-charged language.  Here are some ways that reporters are trying to make ES cells more palatable to the public:

  1. ES joins the army:  An article on Science Daily claims that embryonic stem cells are being recruited in the war on terror.  A University of Georgia research claims that neural cells induced to multiply from stem cells can detect toxins in the environment, like on a battlefield.  The article fails to mention, however, why embryonic stem cells are needed, and whether adult stem cells could do the job just as well (cf. 07/19/2007).  It also begins with this misleading clause that suggests that embryonic stem cells have already produced cures: “For more than a decade, Steve Stice has dedicated his research using embryonic stem cells to improving the lives of people with degenerative diseases and debilitating injuries.”  The record shows, however, that only adult stem cells have produced therapies that can improve the lives of people, while embryonic stem cells arouse fears of a new era of eugenics (12/16/2006, 11/29/2006 08/13/2006).
  2. Get over it:  The Editorial in Nature 9/27 urged Germans to get over their ethical qualms about embryonic stem cells and get with the international stem cell gold rush (cf. 12/16/2005).  Some German ethicists have pointed to the success of adult stem cells to show that embryonic stem cells are unnecessary.  In urging a change, Nature used only bandwagon arguments (cf. 07/31/2006): “The majority of scientists agree that work on both adult and embryonic sources of stem cells should run in parallel until much more is understood about their biology,” the editorial said.  “But Germany is out of step with most European countries in permitting research only on human embryonic stem-cell lines that were created before January 2002, when regulations were first laid down.”  The article admitted that the creation of new ES cell lines “involves destroying human embryos,” but urged scientists to step up their campaigns against the opponents of the controversial research – many of whom are still smarting from the bad reputation Germany inherited from human medical research atrocities of the Nazis (04/07/2005, 02/28/2006, 12/16/2006).
  3. Kahuna:  In the same issue, Nature published an interview with Alan Trounson, newly appointed head of California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) – the $3 billion stem-cell center approved by California voters.  The differences in success between adult and embryonic cells were blurred in his statement, “Mesenchymal [multipotent] stem cells are already in clinical trials.  Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are coming of age….”  His ending statement was even more telling: “Adult stem cells are happening.  Embryonic stem cells will come into use, and they won’t be immediate cures for everything.  You need drugs and protocols as well as the cells, and you’ve got to work with the immune system.”  Yet California voters had been swayed by tear-jerking stories of invalids who would be cured by embryonic stem cells.  The problems from subjects’ immune systems rejecting embryonic stem cells have so far rendered them medically useless.  On top of that, Trounson made it clear that no cures are forthcoming any time soon (cf. 10/13/2006).
  4. Loaded words:  Because the words “embryonic” and “cloning” are touchy with the public, the US Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry is changing its name to the Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Registry.  Monya Baker reported in Nature 9/27 that this was intended to downplay ethically-charged words.  Baker quoted a professor of rhetoric who called this “linguistic deflation of public anxiety.”  The center was reacting to an executive order from President Bush that stem cell lines be expanded “in ethically responsible ways.” 

The same issue of Nature pointed to a promising avenue of research that might solve the ethical problems.  “For practical and ethical reasons, researchers are on the lookout for ways to reprogramme one mature cell type into another,” said Huafeng Xie and Stuart H. Orkin in News and Views.  “In one case, this might be as easy as switching off a single gene.”  They highlighted research that showed it may be possible to turn one kind of cell into another kind through a process of “cellular reprogramming.”  They pointed to a paper in the same issue by Cobaleda et al who found that “mature B cells can be converted to functional T cells, and reprogramming is achieved by B cells taking a step backwards to assume a more immature state.”  If so, it might become possible to take adult cells from a person and convert them back into an embryonic state – no ethical qualms involved.  “Such insights will, in turn, make the alteration of cell fates using modulation of gene expression and the generation of a specific cell population possible, which is a primary goal of regenerative medicine.”  See also the 06/06/2007 and 08/25/2006 entries.

As we have shown repeatedly before, ES stem-cell advocates are pushing their agenda past the ethical gatekeepers on selfish, pragmatic grounds, yet have no results to show for it.  The appeals are always for Nobel Prizes and staying ahead in the international sweepstakes.  Whenever an ethicist calls them on the questionable reasoning of taking one life to help another (07/11/2005), they hum and guffaw and dodge the issue.  Now they are trying to blur the language with euphemisms to pull the wool over our eyes.  Don’t let them get away with it (07/19/2007).

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