stem cells redux
With the president elect touring the White House, rumor is that the ban on creating any new stem cell lines and restrictions on funding for embryonic stem cell research might be on the chopping block in just a few months. Expect the same groups which lobbied for the ban to have another very public conniption and compose reams of editorials decrying embryonic stem cell research as an ethically erroneous dead end. Last time, their tactics worked thanks to the ideological leanings of President Bush and his team. But this time, there may be little they can do.
The biggest problem with the arguments put together by the various groups that oppose this research is that they’re not built on sound science, but on their personal opinions of ethics and morality. They claim that destroying a blastocyst is the equivalent of snuffing out a life and that doing it for research is downright despicable. Their goal is to make production of embryonic stem cell lines the moral and legal equivalent of murder, even if the victim in question is a set of undifferentiated cells that won’t receive any instruction as to what they’re going to become.
How a blastocyst can grow into an actual human can be seen in IVF, or in-vitro fertilization. In theory, a lab created embryo (like the ones created for a stem cell line) implanted into a healthy uterus should start developing into a baby. In reality, it takes multiple embryos to make a viable pregnancy and not all of them will survive. And they’re not just any embryos. They have to be specially selected for the best chance of development. What happens to the embryos who don’t make the cut? They could either be destroyed or used for stem cell research. Unfortunately, they’re usually just discarded.
Ignoring this issue, embryonic stem cell opponents also say that adult stem cells offer a viable alternative and that since to date no one has been cured by embryonic stem cell applications, it’s a lost cause. It’s not like some scientists haven’t tossed them ammunition either. A number of researchers made very bold claims about both the potential and the timelines for developing treatments from these cells. But the argument of abandoning research because it was oversold by a zealous few and going after adult stem cells because it’s easier, carries with it two major flaws.
Firstly, medical research is hard. Abandoning a project because you personally don’t like the mechanics involved and it happens to be difficult, is not a good way to do science. It’s also not a good way to approach a project. By this logic, how many other projects should we shut down because they’re taking a long time? Should we shut down the space program? Nuclear fusion research? Alternative energy labs? All of them are taking a long time and all of them have been hyped by people greedy for publicity. If we didn’t pursue difficult projects, we wouldn’t learn or accomplish anything major and hamper our progress.
Secondly, while adult stem cells are great and have many therapeutic uses, it doesn’t mean that they’re the better alternative. Adult stem cells have limitations. They only occur in tiny amounts and very few can be regressed back to a state in which they can divide to form different types of cells that might be needed. They also carry the years of genetic damage accumulated by an aging human body which poses some risks when they start dividing and growing. Embryonic stem cells on the other hand have almost pristine genomes (though different from those of the host which poses bioengineering challenges), can turn into any of the 200 cell types found in a human body and could tell us enough about how we’re put together to create a much greater array of treatments, particularly of cancers.
Let’s be clear that harnessing this knowledge and making it applicable is many decades away. But the work has started. We have embryos that are deemed unsuitable for implantation and development waiting for us in deep freeze to begin the creation of new lines. We have the time and the money. All that stands in the way is an ideology that cares first and foremost, about fulfilling its personal stances on morality. And interestingly enough, that’s the biggest obstacle of them all.