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Cell Division

Why Are Scientists Still Split Over Stem Cells?

Denyse O'Leary

“The greatest breakthrough in our or any lifetime.”

That was how Ron Reagan (son of Ronald) described embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR) back in 2004. Similarly, John Edwards, erstwhile candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, once prophesied that “Superman” Christopher Reeve, paralyzed in 1995, would arise and walk again if only religious fanatics would stop impeding the progress of stem-cell research by blocking access to funding. Theirs was the holiest of the pro-choice causes—devotion to limitless life at the small price of already discarded lives.

Reeve did indeed arise and walk again—on Super Bowl Sunday in 2000. Frantic callers soon discovered that the televised feat was a digitally altered commercial for “wealth management.” Reeve’s real-life journey ended in 2004 from complications of quadriplegia. But the ESCR cause thrived on his memory—and on hope and desperation, to say nothing of lavish funding by the state of California.

The ad was a fitting emblem for the ESCR cause. No lasting cures were attributed to the forbidden magic of the forgotten embryos. Meanwhile, conventional medical science chugged along, developing dozens of treatments from stem cells found via cheek swabs and in gushing cord blood.

Then suddenly, in the summer of 2007, researchers announced that genes added to adult skin cells can trick them into acting like embryonic stem cells. So even if cells from younger humans were better—now a moot point—adult cells could be “born again” into those “younger” cells.

In retrospect, why did the media support ESCR to the exclusion of adult and cord-blood cell lines that were yielding better results? As Pamela Winnick argues in A Jealous God, routine journalism could have turned up this fact quite easily, but the pundits were pointedly not looking for it. Quite the contrary, Winnick recounts. Though few would speak for attribution, researchers who worked on adult cells feared that criticizing ESCR was politically incorrect. Winnick cites the case of Dr. Ammon Peck of the University of Florida, who was excluded from NIH and National Academy of Sciences conferences on diabetes. Why? Unlike the feted attendees and speakers, Peck had shown encouraging results from adult-mouse stem cells. David Prentice suffered a similar fate at Indiana State University for pointing out that adult stem cells “are already fulfilling the promises only dreamed of for ES cells.”

After the adult-cells announcement, ESCR lobbyists, deprived of their signature tune (that opposition to ESCR is “anti-science”), quickly learned a new one: ESCR is too far along to abandon, so both lines of research should be pursued. Since when is a technology that becomes obsolete before it’s commercialized too far along to abandon?

Interestingly, the prestigious science journal Nature, when making its case for continuing embryo research, announced that ESCR researchers would actually be relieved if adult stem cells eventually proved the more effective therapeutic path. “Abandoning work on human embryonic stem cells would allow them to operate with a clear conscience and without having to defend their work all the time.”

So the researchers knew all along that ESCR was wrong? They were violating their consciences? Previously, we had been assured that only religious fanatics viewed ESCR that way.

In a biting piece in The Wall Street Journal, Joseph Bottum asked,

All those editorialists and columnists who have, over the past 10 years, howled and howled about Luddites and religious fanatics thwarting science and frustrating medicine—were they really interested in technology and health, or were they just using all that as a handy stick with which to whack their political opponents?

Bottum suggested that ESCR was intended to prop up abortion. If everyone’s health requires the death of embryos, then opposition to abortion becomes hopelessly hypocritical.

Perhaps. But it might also be the case that the committed secularist’s devotion to ESCR is less strategic than Bottum’s description implies. Maybe when industry processes large batches of embryos into health products, it simply reassures the secularist that those embryos are not God-given. 

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