April 7, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Stem Cells Polarize Ethics

Adult stem cells are continuing to promise revolutionary therapies, while embryonic stem cells remain a political football even after Obama’s loosening of restrictions.  Some stories seem to suppress the word “embryonic” and just talk about “stem cells,” but there is a big difference in the ethics of one over the other.  Embryonic stem cells require harvesting a human embryo.
Adult Stem Cell News

  1. Diabetes:  Sufferers of peripheral artery disease, common among diabetics, may have hope using stem cells from their own bone marrow.  PhysOrg reported that researchers at the University of Western Ontario isolated three types of stem cells from bone marrow that can regrow blood vessels.
  2. Bone:  Arthritis?  Hip fracture?  The BBC News reported that stem cells from bone marrow are showing promise to regrow bone.  Researchers at Keele University attach the stem cells to tiny magnets and then guide them to places where they are needed.  “The technique combines the patients [sic] own bone marrow stem cells with donor bone cells to patch-repair damaged bones that would otherwise need treatment with metal plates and pins.” 
  3. Angina:  Adult stem cells may alleviate the pain of angina and allow patients with the heart condition to walk again.  Autologous (from-the-patient) stem cells from bone marrow helped patients walk longer on a treadmill without pain, reported Science Daily.

Embryonic Stem Cell News

  1. Fetal harvesting:  An upbeat article from Science Daily says “New Stem Cell Therapy May Lead To Treatment For Deafness.”  The body of the article describes a scientist from University of Sheffield harvesting cochlear cells from 9- to 11-week old human fetuses.  They got them to differentiate into inner ear cell types, but not to form the hair bundles characteristic of the cochlea.  The research is in the early stages; no actual treatments are being proposed.  It was not clear from the article where they got the fetuses.
  2. Brazil nuts:  Science last week reported that Brazil ran roughshod over religious leaders by banking on embryonic stem cell research over their objections.  “Despite vocal opposition from religious groups, the Brazilian government has launched a major initiative in pluripotent stem cell research.  In the past 3 weeks, eight university labs in four states started receiving the first payments of a 3-year, $9.3 million grant intended to reshape them into Cell Technology Centers.”  In this predominantly Catholic country, religious leaders have opposed ES research for years, but “A coalition of scientific groups, including the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science, and patients’ advocacy organizations fought back.”  Last year, after one advocate “helped fill the Supreme Federal Court galleries with people in wheelchairs and their relatives,” Brazil’s Supreme Court upheld a 2005 law allowing the harvesting of stem cells from fertility clinics.  Now the government is supporting it with the taxes of those who oppose it.
  3. Harvesting Obama for more:  Constance Holden wrote in Science March 20 that scientists, though thrilled with Obama’s executive order loosening restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, want more: “Many scientists would like to work with lines created through research cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).”  Human cloning was considered abhorrent by most ethicists during the Bush administration.  Arguments for stem cells from fertility clinics at the time stressed that those embryos were going to be destroyed anyway.  Many politicians on both sides of the aisle at the time stressed that they did not support human cloning.
        Obama’s executive order, however, did not specify the source of the embryos.  It appears that scientists might have the liberty to choose what stem cells to work on – including those of human embryos created solely for research purposes.  What guidelines or restrictions will the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provide?

    The traditional opponents of hES cell research are expecting the worst.  Even with the derivation of new cell lines still banned, some fear the new policy will turn the federal government into an indirect supporter of cloning.  The executive order “turned out to be far more extreme than [the] biggest proponents had hoped,” said the Family Research Council.  “With no clear policy from the White House, you and I could be footing the bill for research that clones embryos just to scavenge their parts.”  Psychiatrist and columnist Charles Krauthammer, a former member of the president’s bioethics commission, said in an op-ed column that he does not oppose hES cell research but accused the president of “moral abdication” in leaving it up to scientists whether to create embryos solely for research.
        On the contrary, says Harvard University’s George Daley: “We need legislation that allows [such] decisions … to be left to scientists.”  Daley points out that guidelines hammered out in 2005 by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and regularly updated, as well as recommendations by the International Society for Stem Cell Research, do not specify what biological sources should be used but focus on informed consent procedures for obtaining eggs, sperm, or embryos, and proper scientific procedures.
        So far, there’s no available evidence that researchers anywhere are using lines other than from excess IVF embryos….

    The tone of the article indicates that scientists want to police their own policies but fear running afoul of public concerns over ethics.  Meanwhile, Kurt Gottfried and Harold Varmus, in the same issue of Science (March 20), portrayed the Obama Era (including his support of embryonic stem cell research) as “The Enlightenment Returns.”  This presumably portrays the Bush Era as a kind of scientific Dark Ages.  They commented on Obama’s call for scientific integrity, which they interpreted as science free from political agendas performed by those with good scientific qualifications, but they did not use the words ethics or morals.  Speaking of ethics, two researchers wrote in the same March 20 issue of Science about the growing problem of offshore clinics that lure patients with promises of miracle cures with stem cells. 

  4. Where to draw the line?  The editorial in Nature March 26 said, “Now that the US federal funding ban on human embryonic stem cells is lifted, scientists must engage the public’s concerns about embryo research.”  What kind of embryos are acceptable for research?  Notice where these strong advocates of embryonic stem cell research drew an ethical line:

    A key requirement for productive dialogue is a common frame of reference.  Here, the word ‘embryo’ is a stumbling block.  This term refers to everything from a newly fertilized single-celled egg to millions of cells organized into eyelids, ears, genitals and limbs.  Yet the latter form, which is present some eight weeks after fertilization, is not only ethically unacceptable for research but also far too old to yield embryonic stem cells.
        Multiple sets of widely accepted guidelines from, for example, the US National Academies, the International Society for Stem Cell Research and Britain’s Warnock Report agree that the first sign that cells for the future body are starting to specialize – the glimmer of a structure known as the primitive streak at about 14 days after an egg begins to divide – marks the end of when any laboratory research on human embryos should be considered.  To discuss this responsibly, scientists should insist on precision, specifying an embryo’s developmental state in terms of its age, for example, or the number of cells.

    But is this stage of the embryo such a clear dividing line?  Could it not be pushed to 15 days, then 16, then three weeks or more by a future consortium of scientists and politicians, especially when money or fame are at stake?  The Germans learned in a grim way that scientific consensus is no bedrock on which to anchor a standard of what is “acceptable” (04/07/2005).

Leading science journals have been attacking the Bush era and praising the Obama administration for its support of embryonic stem cell research.  Nature said last week, “President Barack Obama’s appointment of academic scientists and economists to positions of high authority in his administration has created the sort of excitement in universities and among researchers that has not been seen for eight years.  Certainly, after George W. Bush’s grudging agreement to a constricted programme of stem-cell research and his politicization of scientific findings about the environment, Obama’s choice of prominent scholars is a breath of fresh air.
    Likewise, Science interviewed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, giving her high marks for her support of “science.”  Reporter Jeffrey Mervis called her a “big hit” and said she “lights up a crowd” with her support of scientific institutions.  “Donning her mantle as party leader, she used the events to take a swipe at the Bush Administration,” he said, quoting her: “For a long time, science had not been in the forefront.  It was faith or science, take your pick.  Now we’re saying that science is the answer to our prayers.”  She also told a group of “assembled biomedical bigwigs” that “we need your help again to make President Obama’s executive order on stem cell research the law of the land.

The scientific societies, wedded to liberal politics as they are, don’t know ethics from a black hole.  “We don’t see anyone cloning humans… yet” they say, softening the public, like a frog in the pot, to accept what is coming.
    To understand what is going on, read Ann Coulter’s book Godless about the secular liberal love fest with abortions and embryonic stem cells, in spite of the scientific evidence.  Read how liberals use victims and emotional propaganda, like celebrity pleas and courtrooms filled with wheelchairs, to spin their desire to kill as “compassion.”  See intentional folly turn into moral evil in the name of science by people who hate real science.  It will break your heart.
    From the people who deny God as the Author of life, and who see humans as evolved slime, what would you expect?  Life is cheap.  Life is trash.  Scientists can play with it and do whatever they want.  Morals, shmorals.  If a cure for some disease emerges, fine, but it’s not a requirement.  Just get me a Nobel Prize.  In a perverted revolutionary cry, the out-of-control scientists shout: give me liberty, and give me death.

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