Only a bunch of cells? comment on obama embryonic stem cell decision

I spent 45 minutes on a radio programme last night, invited allegedly to discuss the decision of US President Obama to allow federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research.

Instead I sat with a wry smile, as male after male listener rang in to the programme ranting about the absurdity of defending the rights of a bunch of cells over the adult carriers of various dreadful diseases (Parkinsons, Alzheimers, diabetes, spinal injury, and so on).

Did I not realise that I was condemning to death huge numbers of adult humans for the sake of non-sentient, not recognisable, going nowhere, blobs of nothingness?

With levels of discrimination rarely permitted in our politically correct country, the diatribe against those with religious beliefs was endless. And naturally I was automatically consigned to that mad callous corner, with the presumption that only seriously perverse people could possibly oppose embryo research.

According to one voice down the line if it had not been for the ignorance of religion we would be 200 years ahead with scientific progress. I did try to explain that modern genetics owed much to the likes of the Augustinian priest, Gregor Mendel. And also that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the chromosomal disorder Trisomy 21 which is the cause of Down Syndrome; discovered by a devout Catholic French geneticist, Prof Jerome Lejeune, himself an adamant defender of the right to life of the human embryo.

The scientist beside me in the studio, invited to present the calm logical voice of reason, explained that the human embryo was indeed just a bunch of cells, yes they were alive, but then so are sperm and eggs live human cells. So what’s the difference? And the embryos are going to be thrown away anyway, they are just spares, so you can’t call that life. Any of my attempts to explain the distinction between a living cell and a living organism were conceptually beyond him.

But I digress …

Here follows what CORE would have liked to have said on the radio programme last night …

Comment from CORE

It needs to be underlined immediately that embryonic stem cell research, cloning, parthenogenesis, and the like have never been prohibited in the USA. The position adopted by ex-President Bush, who has been regularly criticised for allowing ideology to influence science policy, was to ensure a prohibition on the allocation of federal funds for such research. Research on 21 embryonic stem cell lines already in existence was, however, permitted.

So apart from this modest restriction on the use of public money, embryonic stem cell research has been free to develop in the USA outside federal legislation, with State or private investment, wherever money was forthcoming.

The ethical debate surrounding the status of the human embryo will continue unabated, as will resistance to the suggestion that science exists in some kind of ethical void, but we suggest President Obama would be well advised to sit down pretty sharply and analyse objectively the scientific reality, as opposed to the hype, surrounding the use of human embryos as stem cell sources.

Embryonic stem cell research has been with us for over a decade now and there is very little to show for it in terms of tangible evidence of likely cures. The first and only human embryonic stem cell trial has only just got FDA approval, but it is not to provide cures but an attempt to prove the principle that embryonic stem cells can be implanted without doing harm. Cures – if ever – are decades away.

On the other hand, ethically sourced stem cells, whether from adult donors or from the cord blood and placenta at birth, are already curing patients. There have been, for example, over 20,000 patients treated with cord blood stem cells. Peer-reviewed journals show at least 80 diseases which are already benefiting from regenerative medicine using adult stem cells. Even spinal cord injury has been treated using patient-specific adult stem cells, with recorded improvement in mobility.

The most exciting development in the field of ethical alternatives has been the discovery of a technology which produces a new kind of stem cell, which has all the properties of the embryonic stem cell, but does not involve the destruction of a live human embryo. The resulting cell is called an induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS cell), and research has moved in this field in an incredibly short space of time, from animal to human research in 3 years. It is created directly from the patient by a technology which is relatively simply to perform, and avoids the risks associated with immune-rejection which would be associated with embryonic stem cell research using somebody else’s embryos.

In a time when his country is facing increasing economic hardship, Obama should assess very carefully what is the best use of public funding. By emphasizing embryonic stem cells he will encourage more human embryo destruction, waste taxpayers’ money, and lead US science down a blind alley. In the longer run this will be neither a vote winner for him personally nor put the USA at the head of the stem cell race.

Bush has been accused by the new administration of allowing idealogy to influence science. Obama is suggesting instead that science can be purged of politics and decisions will be made on the basis of facts alone. That sounds to me simply like a new version of idealogy, with science elevated to the status of infallible dogma.

Stem cell science, or any science for that matter, divorced from ethics is a terrifying thought.

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