January 31, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Obama and Stem Cells: Hope Chest or Pandora’s Box?

Any day now, as he promised, President Obama will likely lift funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research imposed by former President Bush.  Bush had sought the council of leading scientists and ethicists before making his decision.  Obama, by contrast, will be yielding to the opinions of the scientific societies who have clamored for years that they need and want access to these morally-questionable cells.  It’s a good time to ask if the research to date has been promising.
    Science Magazine expressed “Celebration and Concern Over U.S. Trial of Embryonic Stem Cells.”1  The report concerns FDA approval of a study allowing injection of ES cells into humans afflicted with spinal cord injuries.   The work will be conducted on 8 to 10 patients by Geron, a company in Menlo Park, California.  The lead researcher offered only small hope: “I don’t expect this treatment to allow patients to jump out of wheelchairs and play soccer,” he said, but “a meaningful and incremental advance” in mobility is possible.  Despite the champagne celebrations at the prospect of an actual clinical trial, some researchers, according to Science reporter Jennifer Couzin, are concerned that this may not be the best test case.  They are also concerned that the trials may produce harmful tumors (teratomas) in human subjects as they have in ES cell experiments on animals.
    A bad result could set back research enormously.  One said, “we’re still – a long way from really understanding a good deal about these cells and how to use them safely.”  Nevertheless, Geron CEO Thomas Okarma is confident the tests are ready for humans.  Other companies are getting ready for trials.  One said, “we were always told, ‘Cure a patient and then all of this [controversy] will go away.’”  This underscores the fact that no treatment with ES cells has yet produced a cure.  Adult stem cell research, without the ethical problems associated with creating and destroying human embryos, has had many successes.  ES cell research, so far, has only offered promises.
    Live Science reported that “Stem Cells Reverse Paralysis in Rats.”  One might assume from the title that embryonic stem cells were involved.  The body of the article, though, makes it clear this is another success from adult stem cells.  “The rat study involved adult stem cells, which are found in adult tissues,” the article clarified in paragraph 6.  “It is the other type of stem cells, embryonic stem cells, that some activists find objectionable, partly because these cells are derived from embryos through a process that currently destroys them.”  Then the article discussed the upcoming clinical trial with ES cells.
    Rats given the adult stem cells recovered significant motor activity one week after injury, Live Science reported.  But ES cell therapies have long been in future tense.  Why the new President and the scientific communities have been so adamant that ES cell research is critically important is a question awaiting demonstration.

1.  Jennifer Couzin, “Celebration and Concern Over U.S. Trial of Embryonic Stem Cells,” Science, 30 January 2009: Vol. 323. no. 5914, p. 568, DOI: 10.1126/science.323.5914.568.

Even if ES cell therapy produces a cure, would that eliminate the moral and ethical issues?  Will a cure make the controversy go away?  Only if one is a pragmatist (“the end justifies the means”).  Reread our 12/17/2008 and 10/15/2008 entries to think through the issues.  Never make a moral decision on hype.  Many awful movements started with the best of intentions.

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