The Rorschach Test of ESCR

Stem Cell Research — By on November 21, 2007 at 1:47 am

A bit of skin is all it took to transform one of the most controversial ethical issues of our time.
Dr. James Thomson and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, working independently, are the first to show how embryonic-type stem cells can be produced directly from ordinary human skin cells, without first creating or destroying human embryos. The reprogrammed cells, the scientists report, appear to behave very much like human embryonic stem cells but were called “induced pluripotent stem cells,” meaning cells that can change into many different types.
“By any means we test them they are the same as embryonic stem cells,” Dr. Thomson says.
For the past half decade, embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) has been a hotly debated topic. Because of this I suspect that there will be four main–though potentially overlapping–groups that will react strongly to this story.
The first are those who care about the science. They will be awed by one of the most monumental discoveries of the decade. As Yuval Levin notes, this finding “will revolutionize cell biology, and get a lot of PhD level textbooks thrown in the garbage today.”
The second are those who believed the hype about ESCR leading to cures. They will initially be elated — and then dejected when they find that the real potential for ESCR is basic research and that any therapeutic uses are likely to come decades from now.
The third are those who have a financial stake in current ESCR research. They will attempt to downplay the significance of this finding. According to a recent report put out by the Rockefeller Institute, to date about $1.7 billion has poured into ESCR and SCNT from philanthropic sources. This doesn’t include the hundreds of millions granted annually by the states for cloning and ESCR experiments. There are too many people making money off embryo-destructive research to give it up without a fight.
The last two categories are comprised of people who were primarily concerned about the ethical implications. One group was honestly concerned about the moral issues surrounding ESCR and will be overjoyed that a solution to the problem has been found that has the potential to please all parties involved.
The last group is those who favor embryo-destructive research because it gives them an ethical excuse (i.e., compassion for the sick) for denying the inherent dignity of humans in the embryonic stage of life. I agree with Joseph Bottum, who says in First Things:

I have long suspected that science, in the context of the editorial page of the New York Times, was simply a stalking-horse for something else. In fact, for two something-elses: a chance to discredit America’s religious believers and an opportunity to put yet another hedge around the legalization of abortion. After all, if our very health depends on the death of embryos, and we live in a culture that routinely destroys early human life in the laboratory, no grounds could exist for objecting to abortion.

ESCR has always been as much of a Rorschach test as a field of medical research. Whether a tool for unlocking of scientific knowledge, a cure for an ailing family member, a deep reservoir for government funding, a struggle for human dignity, or a stalking-horse for abortion politics, people look as the issue and see what they want to see. We’ll all look at this finding and see something different. Hopefully, it will help us all see the issue a bit more clearly.



  • Nick

    The first are those who care about the science. They will be awed by one of the most monumental discoveries of the decade. As Yuval Levin notes, this finding “will revolutionize cell biology, and get a lot of PhD level textbooks thrown in the garbage today.”
    That would be me. This is frikkin awesome, although I’m probably more excited about the mouse version of the technique. It is more likely to be useful for basic science.
    One group was honestly concerned about the moral issues surrounding ESCR and will be overjoyed that a solution to the problem has been found that has the potential to please all parties involved.
    And not only that, but if the kinks can be ironed out, this is likely to be a much easier way to derive patient-specific stem cells than cloning an embryo.
    However, it’s worth bearing in mind that we probably wouldn’t be celebrating this breakthrough, if it weren’t for earlier research into cells from embryos. At a minimum, the scientists can say the new cells resemble embryonic stem cells, because they have a basis for comparison. More generally, the scientists learned how to study and manipulate stem cells by working with embryonic cells. Most of the early work was done in mice, but the human research requires human cells for comparison, because there may be significant differences between mice and humans. IIRC, one of the lead authors was also the first person to derive human stem cells from embryos.
    This is a great step forward, but for those who are honestly concerned about the ethics of embryo destruction, it isn’t completely untainted.

  • http://www.lifeethics.org/www.lifeethics.org/index.html Beverly Nuckols, MD

    For a sample of the last group, check out the press release from the University of Wisconsin, quoting Robin Alta Charo and Art Caplan’s MSNBC column that asks, “Lastly, some may wonder if a reprogrammed panacea cell acts like an embryo, should it then be classified as a human embryo?”
    The first is not at all surprising given Ms. Charo’s views on the status of humans (covered at my blog), but Caplan’s question is just off the wall. Even the cells taken from the inner cell mass of an embryo can’t make an embryo, they lose th organization and the genes that make up the future placenta. Neither of the papers report anything about trophoblast cells.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    The last group is those who favor embryo-destructive research because it gives them an ethical excuse (i.e., compassion for the sick) for denying the inherent dignity of humans in the embryonic stage of life.
    Would you care to tell us who those people are? Some names would be helpful. I’ve never heard of anyone voicing such an opinion about stem-cell research, so I’m not sure this “last group” you speak of even exists.
    People who believe in a right to abortion will do so regardless of ESCR, and people who need stem-cells to make any kind of medical advances will take them wherever they can find them, as long as they work.

  • Raging Bee

    Beverly: I just read the article you cited; and there’s nothing in it about “favor[ing] embryo-destructive research because it gives them an ethical excuse” for abortion. In fact, the article said next to nothing about abortion. The most momentous thing it said was that, at the moment, we should continue to fund research into all known sources of stem-cells, for the simple reason that (in the author’s opinion at least) we may yet find problems in this new method of obtaining them.

  • Beverly Nuckols, MD

    The Wisconsin press release does make a point about over turning the Bush Administration policy. And the Art Caplan piece promotes his philosophical agenda.
    Those of us familiar with Robin Alta Charo and Art Caplan understand the extent to which they allow their politics to influence their work. The the boards and institutions that they’ve worked for include Planned Parenthood, the Alan Guttmacher Institute, and “The Progressive Bioethics Institute.” I’ve written some about Robin Alta, here, and Art, here.
    http://www.lifeethics.org/www.lifeethics.org/2007/11/i-want-ethics-reigns-even-with-good.html
    For more, read “Is there a Progressive in the House?” or this Nature article, where Caplan tells us the difference between himself and conservatives. For a real eye-opener, try to listen to this lecture by Robin Alta Charo.

  • Raging Bee

    Those of us familiar with Robin Alta Charo and Art Caplan understand the extent to which they allow their politics to influence their work.
    That doesn’t change the fact that the first article you cited was not an example of that “last group” whose existence is being alleged.
    Furthermore, the Life Ethics article doesn’t exactly prove the existence of this group either. Charo’s statements were merely warning that the most recent developments would be used as a pretext to de-fund and/or criminalize certain medical research. You may agree with that position or not; but it had nothing at all to do with using ESCR as an excuse for abortion.

  • http://www.lifeethics.org/www.lifeethics.org/index.html Beverly Nuckols, MD

    Yes, I do disagree, having just listened again, to the lecture that I referred to earlier.
    It is vital to this group that the status of human embryos not change. This research takes the pressure off the
    Administration and Congress to change current limits.
    (Although, Thomson did use embryonic stem cells and fetal cells to do his basic research, rather than mouse cells. I’ve reviewed his paper here.)

  • Collin Brendemuehl

    I thought the original matter of pluripotency was sufficient to cause more conversation that it did.
    This induced pluripotency potential has even more
    value to the life ethic.
    How best can the doctors and researchers be persuaded
    and how effectively can the politicians be corrected?
    How many MDs in the Senate/House? Do they know this
    and have they spoken publicly on it? On CSPAN?
    Collin

  • Ken

    My MSN newsfeed at work has picked up on this.
    Their headline?
    Stem Cell Breakthrough Could Benefit GOP
    Nothing exists other than Struggle for the Throne…

  • Mike O

    Ian Wilmut (that’s the creator of Dolly the sheep) has given up plans to clone human embryos and plans to do research in the adult stem cell area where he feels there is more promise for treatments. He also says the new method from Japan and Wisconsin has more potential than cloning embryos. The hurdles to overcome before treatments can be realized are pretty much the same for both (tumors)but the new method is easier and has the advantage of having cells grown from the skin of the person to be treated.
    Drug companies with R & D budgets will probably now spend a little here and the government certainly will. Those who have grants to study ESCR will be able to find grants using this new method and will jump ship to the more promising process and shrink the time to successful treatments.
    Question for Christians: Can you see the hand of God in this and do you think He’s smiling?

  • http://mumonno.blogspot.com Mumon

    This blog certainly has become a lot less influential with a lot less traffic since its owner started to fear facts that dissented from his imagination…

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