February 13, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Tipping Point for Embryonic Stem Cells?

At any time, courts could rule on whether funding of embryonic stem cell research can continue or must be halted.  Whichever way a decision is rendered, whether by Judge Lamberth on the legality of the NIH guidelines, or by the Court of Appeals for DC, the issue will probably wind up before the Supreme Court.  Passions run high on both sides.  A crusader for adult stem cells, profiled in Nature this past week,1 was surprised by how many scientists support her antagonism to the use of human embryos for research.  More on that later; first, some news highlights:

  1. Cooling the flame:  Science Daily told how adult stem cell therapy can reduce inflammatory damage from stroke.  “We are seeing a paradigm shift in the way some types of stem cells may enhance recovery from stroke,” an excited researcher at the University of Texas said.  The adult stem cell therapy appears to dampen inflammation involving the spleen.  This new treatment holds promise to “improve clinical care, reduce long-term health care costs, and improve the quality of life for millions of people.”
  2. iPS momentum:  PhysOrg reported that researchers at Harvard and Columbia have demonstrated that “many iPS cells are the equal of hESCs in creating human motor neurons, the cells destroyed in a number of neurological diseases, including Parkinson’s.”  Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) are a form of adult stem cell that does not involve the destruction of embryos (11/20/2007), as in human embryonic stem cells (hESC).  The article says that iPS cells meet the “gold standard” of pluripotency.  In addition, new methods are speeding the tests for pluripotency of iPS cells.
  3. Hearty iPS:  Another story on PhysOrg highlighted research at Stanford that shows iPS cells can generate beating heart cells that carry a genetic defect under study, allowing “for the first time to examine and characterize the disorder at the cellular level.”
  4. ESC economics:  PhysOrg also discussed the current disarray of patent laws surrounding stem cell lines, data, and treatments.  Some scientists warn of a potential “stifling effect of widespread patenting in stem cell field.”  Bioethicist Debra Matthews (Johns Hopkins) said, “Pervasive taking of intellectual property rights has resulted in a complex and confusing patchwork of ownership and control in the field of stem cell science.”  Although the article was unclear whether the dispute includes adult stem cell research, it mentioned one recommendation being “a centralized portal for access to existing databases, such as the UK Stem Cell Bank and the Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry.”
  5. Mixed bag:  Another article on PhysOrg discussed the new Massachusetts Medical School Human Stem Cell Bank, which opened with seven high-quality stem cell lines (5 embryonic, 2 iPS, with more to follow), and how they are being preserved in liquid nitrogen and made available to researchers around the world.  The article mixed these two sources of stem cells with no mention of ethics: e.g., “The Registry includes information on the derivation, availability and characteristics for more than 1,200 hESC and iPS cell lines developed in over 22 different countries, including more than 200 cell lines with genetic disorders.”
  6. Sex cells:  Parthenogenetic stem cells are taken from reproductive cells (03/12/2005).  Lacking the full complement of chromosome pairs, they might contain a good or bad copy of a gene implicated in a disease like tuberous sclerosis or Huntington’s disease.  Science Daily discussed how work at Nationwide Children’s Hospital is constructing good embryonic stem cells from parthenogenetic cells.  “These single-parent/patient-derived embryonic stem cells can theoretically be used for correction of a diverse number of diseases that occur when one copy of the gene is abnormal,” a research at the hospital said.

The Crusader
With the decision by Judge Lamberth last September prohibiting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research (09/03/2010) still under an injunction (09/26/2010), researchers and bioethicists are waiting to see what the next court ruling will bring.  Nature published the story of “The Crusader,” Theresa Deisher, one of the two remaining plaintiffs who won in the September case.1  Reporter Meredith Wadman presented Deisher in a fairly positive light as an intelligent, confident, persistent, self-sacrificing, hard-working PhD in cell biology, respected by her enemies, a Roman Catholic who “once shunned religion for science” but regained her faith when realizing that fetuses were not just “clumps of cells,” but human beings (cf. 11/07/2002).
    Deisher’s politics in college were “very left-wing,” after she ditched her mother’s religious faith.  “I was in science, and science was much more interesting than religion,” she said.  “I encouraged a couple of friends to have abortions.”  Her return to faith came by degrees: first, the sight of an adult cadaver preserved in formalin made her realize that a fetus preserved in a jar only looks “alien” because of the preservation method.  Second, she encountered first-hand the passions of those bent on researching human embryos; “And the vehemence with which colleagues resisted ‘made me open my eyes’, Deisher says, to the very real – and, she says, unscientific – passions that can infect defenders of scientific orthodoxy,” Wadman wrote.  “Science, she reasoned, was not so objective after all.”  Third, Deisher’s growing antipathy to embryonic stem cell research got an emotional kick when speaking to Republican state lawmakers in Washington state in 2007.  “One of the other speakers was a mother who had adopted a frozen embryo from a fertility clinic,” Wadman continued.  “The resulting child, a girl then four years old, stood beside her.
    Deisher sold her house and used her retirement savings to start an institute for the advancement of adult stem cell therapies.  She is not, thereby, antagonizing scientists by opposing them through the political process; when asked, she reluctantly signed on as a plaintiff in the lawsuit that resulted in Lamberth’s ruling: “It is frightening to speak out,” she said; “I don’t care for the notoriety.”  Instead, her AVM Biotechnology company seeks to provide positive alternatives: “The company’s mission, in part, is to eliminate the need for embryonic-stem-cell therapies and enable adult-stem-cell companies to succeed by developing, for instance, drugs that promote stem-cell retention in target organs,” It is also working on alternatives to vaccines currently produced using cell lines derived from fetuses that had been aborted decades ago.”  Unlike the institutes in California that have $3 billion in taxpayer-approved bonds at their disposal, Deisher runs her company in a dormitory with five unpaid staff.
    A lot rides on the court’s next move.  If the court agrees with Deisher, Wadman ended, “it will shut down hundreds of human-embryonic-stem-cell experiments once more – possibly for good.”  One of the most interesting things Deisher learned from the lawsuit – indeed, the “biggest lesson,” Wadman called it – was, in Deisher’s words, “how many scientists are against [human-embryonic-stem-cell research].  I did not know that. I did not expect the level of support and encouragement that I have received.


1.  Meredith Wadman, “The Crusader,” Nature 470, 156-159 (Feb 9, 2011) | doi:10.1038/470156a.

That Nature would print this story about Deisher is an encouraging sign that the momentum may be turning away from embryonic stem cell research.  Nature used to wield its editorial pen against the opponents the way it does against creationists, calling them ignorant moralists standing in the way of progress (02/11/2005, 09/27/2004).  Dr. Tracy Deisher certainly does not fit that description, nor does Dr. James Sherley, an adult stem cell researcher at Boston Biomedical Research Institute, the other remaining plaintiff in the lawsuit.  For sure, Wadman snuck in enough jibes about Deisher to titillate Nature’s leftist readers (calling her a “bundle of contradictions,” pointing out that she never applied for a NIH grant, pointing out that she studies the “pernicious” and “disproven” hypothesis that autism might be triggered by vaccines, quoting people who call her “polarizing,” remarking in a callout box that “she’s kind of the Sarah Palin of stem cells,”), but she gave Deisher a lot of room to respond, too.
    What was not said may be more telling.  Wadman did not point out any benefits of embryonic stem cells over adult stem cells.  She did not quote any leading ES researchers making a good case for cutting up embryos.  And she did not even attempt to defend ES research on ethical grounds.  Instead, she gave Deisher space to make two striking blows: (1) that many scientists are opposed to human embryonic stem cell research, and (2) that hESC researchers are not driven primarily by concern for the sick.  Researchers prefer to work on ES cells because they are convenient, Deisher argued; their science “is not about helping patients and it’s not about advancing the common good.”  Instead, she argued, “There is no commercial, clinical or research utility in working with human embryonic stem cells.”  That anecdote about the four-year-old girl born from a frozen embryo added emotional clout.  Here was a darling human being – obviously a great deal more than a clump of cells.
    These are signs that embryonic stem cell research is losing its hype-driven public mandate (cf. 01/02/2011).  After all the promises, it has produced no cures (while adult stem cell research is on a roll; see 11/18/2010 starting from initial promise in 01/24/2002).  It is superfluous, now that iPS technology is its equal, without the ethical qualms.  Its credibility has been marred by fraud (12/16/2005), while others worry about future abuses (10/21/2004; cf. 04/22/2004 and 07/30/2001 on eugenics).  Opponents within the scientific community are becoming more bold.  And it is hanging by a thread, waiting for the next court ruling that might end its federal funding for good (double entendre intentional).  But why should it get federal funding in the first place?  If the promises were credible, commercial and charitable support would be overwhelming.  That ES researchers have to lean on the government dole is a sign it is not commercially viable.
    Is this subject relevant for Creation-Evolution Headlines?  Maybe not directly, but one’s view of the origin of life and humanity has direct bearing on ethics.  The stem cell controversy of the past decade has been a direct outgrowth of competing views on the significance of human life.  If an embryo is “just a clump of cells,” then playing with those clumps because of their convenience or the temptation of a Nobel prize has no ethical consequences.  But if human life was created by God, it never loses its sanctity from conception to burial.  It will affect how we view a fetus in a jar, a plasticized body in an exhibit, an Alzheimer’s patient in a nursing home, a woman considering an abortion, the direction of scientific research.  It’s where the rubber of worldview meets the road of scientific practice.

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