May 30, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Stem Cells: Hope, Politics, Charity, and Clarity

Those promising little cells that can differentiate into almost any tissue continue to make news – but they also continue to generate controversy.  Actually, only some of them generate controversy: the embryonic stem cells.  Not all of the articles about stem cells make that clear. 

  1. Defining life:  With the stroke of a pen, South Korea decided that frozen human embryos are not life forms.  PhysOrg reported that “The ruling means that human embryos that are in their early stage and are not implanted into a mother’s womb cannot be seen as human life forms,” even though they have a full complement of human DNA from a father and a mother.  Well, if that is the decision, fertility clinics are free to toss out any ethical concerns about them.  The embryos become non-persons.  The clinics can dispose of them, or turn them over to the Science Lab.  “Following the ruling, shares related to stem-cell research surged on the local market.
  2. Your embryonic brain stem cells:  When you were a mere embryo in the womb, your developing pin-sized brain had special stem cells that were busy building the center of higher learning – the neocortex.  PhysOrg reported that neurologists at UC San Francisco discovered a stem cell in the human embryo “illuminates human brain evolution, points to therapies.”  It “likely accounts for the dramatic expansion of the region in the lineages that lead to man, the researchers say.”  Is this because mice and monkeys lack these stem cells in their brains?  Not exactly; it’s just that in primates and especially in humans, the complexity of the layers and types of stem cells is dramatic.  The scientists equivocated about the e-word, saying that their work follows the “molecular steps that the cell goes through as it evolves into the nerve cell, or neuron, it produces.”  So what’s politics got to do with it?  “This information could then be used to prompt embryonic stem cells to differentiate in the culture dish into neurons for potential use in cell-replacement therapy.”  But what would somebody else’s stem cells, with their DNA, do inside your head?  Is that ethical or desirable?
  3. No controversy in this heart:  The phrase “non-controversial” has a calming effect on a heart.  Science Daily began an article, “A new and non-controversial source of stem cells can form heart muscle cells and help repair heart damage, according to results of preliminary lab tests reported in Circulation Research: Journal of the American Heart Association.”  The source is amniotic membrane, a sac in which the embryo develops, which is a form of medical waste normally discarded after a baby’s delivery.  Now, it can be kept to derive stem cells to heal damaged hearts.  The press release from the American Heart Association said that the cells are not rejected, and transform into heart muscle cells that start beating spontaneously.  In experiments on rats, a significant percent of them survived for weeks and decreased scarring after a heart attack.  If clinical trials show this works on humans, saving up this previously discarded tissue for heart therapy would be a very loving thing to do.
  4. Spanish love:  Spanish scientists have turned fat into a lovely thing.  Science Daily reported that scientists at the University of Granada took stem cells from adipose tissue (fat cells) and reprogrammed them into cardiac myocytes – heart muscle.  “This technique could be used in the future for regeneration of cardiac muscles through the use of cells directly extracted from the patient.”  Wouldn’t that be cool?  Some day, your doctor might extract your fat and use it to repair your heart.
        A somewhat similar study at the University of Texas was reported by PhysOrg.  Your own adult stem cells could be re-injected into your heart and start the repair process, scientists have found.  “Injection of a patient’s own adult stem cells into the heart has shown some efficacy in assisting recovery after a heart attack in early human clinical trials,” the article said.
  5. Hope for MS patients in bone:  Stem cells in bone marrow appear to offer hope for those with multiple sclerosis.  Science Daily reported that “A groundbreaking trial to test bone marrow stem cell therapy with a small group of patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) has been shown to have possible benefits for the treatment of the disease.”  This was a human trial with encouraging results: “The procedure was well tolerated and the participants were followed up for a yearNo serious adverse effects were encountered.”  Bone marrow stem cells are a form of adult stem cell, with no ethical or controversial issues; they can be taken from the patient and re-injected the same day.
  6. Seeing the way for an embryonic stem cell therapy?  A first step toward a possible use of embryonic stem cells was announced by Science Daily.  Researchers at UC Irvine have succeeded in coaxing human embryonic stem cells to differentiate into an “an eight-layer, early stage retina” in the lab.  This was in isolation from an actual eye.  “We made a complex structure consisting of many cell types,” the study leader said; “This is a major advance in our quest to treat retinal disease.”  It is hoped that creating retinal tissue might lead to treatments for macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa and other blinding diseases, but such actual therapies are a long way off.  The article did not say whether embryonic stem cells were required for this feat, or whether adult stem cells, such as induced pluripotent stem cells, could work just as well.

An article on both embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells in Science Daily this month was strangely silent about the controversy.  The focus was on understanding how these cells become pluripotent (i.e., able to differentiate into numerous cell types) – certainly an important issue.  But there was only this brief mention of the ethical controversy surrounding embryonic stem cells: “Because ethical and legal issues have hampered human ES cell research, mouse cells have provided a more viable platform for ES cell studies.”  On those ethical and legal issues, however, rides a great debate, millions of dollars, and fundamental questions about the value of human life.

Is it right to do wrong to have a chance to do right?  Do the ends justify the means?  If there are two ways to get something done, and one is not controversial, why choose the controversial way?  Have we not learned that declaring someone a non-person is the first step to unspeakable abuses of human rights?
    The proponents of embryonic stem cell research know how to play on your emotions with tear-jerking commercials of suffering people.  Californians saw that with their $3 billion stem cell initiative they couldn’t afford (02/08/2005).  What the pleading scientists don’t tell you is that (1) they stand to make a lot of money from tax-funded ES research, (2) embryonic stem cell research is getting stampeded by actual successes in the adult stem cell arena, and (3) ES research is tainted by desires to tinker with human cloning and chimeras (mixing human and animal cells).  Stay away from it.  They have nothing to show for it after years of hype and millions of dollars and one of the biggest scandals in the history of science.  Its advocates are primarily Darwinian leftist progressives.  They have mixed motives.  The practice of harvesting embryos opens up a potential shop of horrors, with markets for women selling their eggs, and catalogs of human body parts.  And with non-controversial iPS and adult stem cells available, we don’t need anything they’re selling.

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