Elect Obama, Get Embryonic Stem Cells
President Obama is about to fulfill of his campaign promises: lifting restrictions on creating new embryonic stem cell lines (see Fox News). The question now is, are they really needed? They have yet to show any successes, while adult stem cells are enjoying an accelerating boom of amazing discoveries that could provide hope for some of mankind’s worst disorders.
(Note: ESC = embryonic stem cells, ASC = adult stem cells).
- Muscular dystrophy: Children and adults plagued by the muscle-wasting malady of muscular dystrophy may now have hope thanks to adult stem cells. PhysOrg and Science Daily both reported advances in treatment in mice that may soon be applicable to humans, using bone marrow stem cells. The treatments, being studied at University of New South Wales in Australia, may also be applicable to regrowing tissues of the liver, pancreas and brain.
- Organ regeneration: Stanford researchers are making progress generating whole organs from ASC. They are finding that with the proper scaffold and an oxygen supply, adult stem cells from fat tissues and bone marrow can be coaxed into growing new organs. “In the near future, the researchers believe that the stem cells in the tissue could be induced to become an internal, living factory of healthy, specialized cells churning out proteins missing in people with conditions such as hemophilia or diabetes,” the article encouraged. “In the long run, they hope to encourage the cells to become entire transplantable organs such as livers or pancreases.”
- Stroke: PhysOrg reported that neural stem cells may be able to reduce the damage from strokes.
- Clean induction: Viruses are no longer necessary as vectors to induce somatic cells into pluripotency. A major advance announced in Science Daily has been made at Mt. Sinai Hospital that “accelerates stem cell technology and provides a road map for new clinical approaches to regenerative medicine.” Dr. Andreas Nagy, the lead researcher said, “This new method of generating stem cells does not require embryos as starting points and could be used to generate cells from many adult tissues such as a patient’s own skin cells.”
ESC is not completely without promise. Science Daily reported that embryonic stem cells are being studied to see if they can grow neurons. This may have application to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, the disorder that afflicts Stephen Hawking. The work appears to be very preliminary. Though they were able to tease ESC-derived products to mimic properties of diseased motor neurons, no cells have been transplanted into animals or humans.
In a letter to Nature this week,1 however, a researcher at University of Basel urged caution on human trials with ESC-derived neurons. Injection will be difficult, and the results hard to assess, he said. We don’t know yet if the treatment will make matters worse. His final paragraph warned,
Given the controversy over the use of human ES cells in some countries, it is to be hoped that the triumphant announcement of the approval of this clinical trial will not prove to be a prime-time setback. Regenerative medicine using human ES cells is an exciting prospect, but the field still needs time to mature. The primary concern of scientists involved in stem-cell research is not to satisfy the short-term expectations of analysts and investors, but to improve public health with the help of innovative, safe treatments.
Speaking of safety, a medical doctor had some horror stories to tell of cancerous tumors resulting from ESC treatments. In “Why Embryonic Stem Cells Are Obsolete,” in US News, Dr. Bernadine Healy said the setbacks using embryonic cells, and the successes of ASC and iPS render ESC research superfluous. She reminds readers that Bush did not create a new policy, but merely reaffirmed a decision Clinton had made preventing federal money for creation of new lines of human embryos for research purposes. “Reversing the executive orders of two prior presidents on embryo creation, which even the Congress has been unwilling to tackle, is a far bigger issue than lifting the ban on the use of IVF embryos slated for destruction,” she concluded. “Obama stands for transparency, and it’s important for him to make sure the public understands his decision, including that all stem cells are not the same or created equally.” Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council calls the impending action by Obama a “Deadly Executive Order.” Arguing that it is unethical to use human life, even young embryonic life, to advance science, Perkins said this action “is a slap in the face to Americans who believe in the dignity of all human life.” Adult stem cells have been used to treat patients with 70 diseases and conditions, he said, while ESC experiments “represent the poorest stem cell science.” While such research is “unfortunately legal,” he argued that “taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for experiments that require the destruction of human life.”
Update 03/09/2009: Fox News reported that Obama signed the executive order, calling the old rules a “false choice” between science and morality. His order “will not open the door for human cloning,” the article claimed. Obama called such action “dangerous” and “profoundly wrong.” Ethicists fear that treating human embryos from IVF as commodities will cheapen human life and make it easier to enact more dangerous policies the next time scientists claim they need something.
1. Yves Barde, “Caution urged in trial of stem cells to treat spinal-cord injury,” Nature 458, 29 (5 March 2009) | doi:10.1038/458029a.
Why are scientists continuing to demand ESC when ASC (12/17/2008) provides all the benefits for eliminating human suffering, without the ethical and moral problems? Why do they demand the government feed their lust with taxpayer dollars? There seems to be more than logic going on here. One plausible reason is that they want to assert authority over what constitutes science. They don’t want any government telling them what they can or cannot do. And since the pro-life and religious crowd has been standing in their way, their pride may be motivating them to give their old enemies another bullying shove.
President Bush was persistently criticized for “politicizing science” (which means, in their tortured logic, exercising his constitutional power over what taxpayer money can be spent on). Remember that scientists were never forbidden from working on ESC research; the only restriction was on federal funding for new stem cell lines. They had unlimited access to ESC lines from before 2001, and could use any private funds they wanted for cutting up human embryos (see NIH Stem Cell Policy document). Start the violins playing; it was just too inconvenient for researchers to keep two separate accounts, one for their federal funds, and one for their private funds. They are clamoring like every other irresponsible business these days for a federal bailout.
Bush tried to explain why he did not feel it was appropriate to use taxpayer money to fund research that many found morally objectionable. For that, he endured scathing criticism from scientific elitists for “mixing politics with science.” Does the hideous unrighteousness of this begin to sink in? Of course federally-funded science is political. If taxpayer money is going to be spent on research, the people paying the bill have the right, through their elected representatives, to have a say about it. Big Science treats it like a divine right to dictate to the rest of us what they want to do with our money. That’s why Feyerabend saw science as a threat to democracy; you have these oligarchs telling the populace what to do, hiding their agenda behind incomprehensible jargon.
If ESC research were so promising of success, you can be sure corporate sponsors would be lined up to support it. Instead, Big Science politicized it by shmoozing political hacks to write initiatives wooing the voters in California and Michigan (10/15/2008) to cough up billions of dollars for ESC institutes. These were promoted with misleading ads suggesting that miracle cures were right around the corner. Commercials played on their heartstrings with disabled celebrities making it sound like cutting up human embryos was the epitome of compassion. After the damage was done (a $3 billion obligation on top of California’s economic meltdown), we are told that any treatments may be years, or decades away, if at all. Now that Obama is enthusiastically caving in to the scientific oligarchy (01/31/2009, 01/20/2009), one of his prime voting blocks (09/28/2008), do California voters get their $3 billion back? A better bet would be to wait for aliens to land with Elvis bringing Earth the ultimate diet.
Citizens must be alert to what is going on. This issue is much bigger than promises about miracle cures. It bears on questions of the nature of human life, the nature of science (11/25/2008, 11/08/2008, 07/24/2008), and the nature of democracy (01/07/2009). The public is rapidly losing a voice in these vital issues as science oligarchs raid their pocketbooks. If you think you can trust scientific experts to provide objective, rational, disinterested voices when billions of dollars are at stake, get real. Don’t take our word for it. Look what Charles Krauthammer wrote in the Washington Post.