Stem-Cell Optimism Misplaced
“A sign of Californians’ deeply rooted optimism about science,” is how the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described California’s decision to borrow $3 billion to fund research on therapeutic cloning. Proposition 71 provides $300 million a year for ten years. In contrast, the National Institutes of Health currently allocate about $500 million a year for all national research on arthritis and related diseases.
The obvious moral arguments against embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning have been raised in the pages of Touchstone, but we can also ask: Is this optimism warranted? Will embryonic stem cells produce the wonders promised, most famously by the late Christopher Reeve and John Edwards, who declared in opposition to President Bush’s policy that if John Kerry were elected, he would lift the ban and Christopher Reeve would walk? I think not.
And so we must ask: Why do so many scientists and members of the public want this research anyway, to the extent of putting an already debt-ridden state into further debt?
It takes very little technical investigation to see that California’s optimism is not warranted by the facts we know. I do medical research in the fields of orthopedics and neuroscience, and the two major meetings of orthopedic researchers I have attended in the past six months offered 28 sessions highlighting research using stem cells. Scientists from around the world presented the results of their studies.
The research is incredibly promising. Using stem cells, it is likely that we will be able to grow new bone to treat bone tumors, and even grow new cartilage to cure arthritis in its early stages. It is perhaps the most promising advance in medical science in the past forty years. However, of the 28 presentations on stem cells, only one involved embryonic stem cells—and that researcher reported negative results. He found that the stem cells derived from embryos that he hoped to develop into cartilage began to develop a pulse, like a heartbeat, after three days. They were uncontrollable.
For those who do not wish to sit through long medical research conferences, a quick glance at the table of contents of the medical journal Stem Cells & Development (available online) shows the same trend: Most successful studies today are being done using non-embryonic stem cells. (Words in the article titles like “bone marrow,” “mesenchymal,” “adipose,” “amniotic fluid,” and “umbilical cord” are giveaways, if you have trouble parsing the titles.)
The promising stem-cell work uses stem cells from adult neural tissue or bone marrow or adipose tissue (fat), or from tissues associated with the umbilical cord and placenta. These have been found to be more controllable in their growth under laboratory conditions. Recent studies have shown that stem cells derived from these sources hold great promise for treating disorders like diabetes and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), to name but two. Embryonic stem-cell research has had relatively poor success to date, mostly due to the uncontrollability of the cellular differentiation process.
Why the Optimism?
So why is there such optimism in my native state for embryonic stem-cell research? Why have politicians and scientists not pressed equally hard for funding for research using stem cells from other sources, now the obviously superior technology? (Think what could be done with $3 billion applied to technologies that we already know work.) There are at least two explanations why so many scientists are arguing for funding, at great cost, an obviously inferior technology, and why a majority of the voting public has agreed with them.
First, scientists do not like to be restricted in any way. While scientists do not typically make good protesters, they have rallied behind research on embryonic stem cells because they are opposed to the government’s telling them what they can and cannot study. Scientists do not like being told they cannot work on human embryos and resent the federal government’s refusal to fund such research (except on stem-cell lines already created).
Never mind the fact that anyone can do as much embryonic stem-cell research as he pleases with private money or by using animals (the mouse embryonic research has not been very successful). And never mind the fact that even if it did work, we would need countless women to volunteer to donate their eggs for it to become a viable technology for treating disease. And never mind the fact that all the scientific evidence shows that the morally inoffensive forms of stem-cell research will work much better and ought to be better funded.
Most scientists just do not like to have moral restrictions placed on their work by the government. I have spoken with many scientists who admit to knowing almost nothing about stem cells but oppose any restrictions because restrictions represent government “interference” with science. They equate such rules with government promotion of religion—meaning “fundamentalist” Christianity—which strikes fear into left-leaning scientists.
And certainly much of the public feels the same way. They believe scientists to be disinterested servants of the public good who should be allowed to work as they please—especially when they promise to make life better—and they believe that any moral objection to scientific research advances the “Religious Right” and threatens their idea of the separation of church and state.
Some of the scientists, however, are more nefarious. They see human cloning as the ultimate experiment—the ability to custom-make people—and they want to pursue that experiment with government funding and approval. It is an expensive enterprise, and businesses, which must judge a technology by how likely it is to work, have so far failed to invest in it.
Second, the public fears suffering and death and indeed all death’s forerunners, like aging bodies, failing organs, and fading minds. They will grasp at any promise that death can be put off and made painless when it comes. They have been told that embryonic stem cells can be used to cure cancer, and Alzheimer’s, and diabetes, and nearly every other disease that plagues man, and they want them cured.
This is easy to justify because most people (especially in blue states like California) also like to think that embryos are less than human. This is the heart of the abortion-rights movement, and therefore the promotion of any technology that incarnates this belief in public law and policy will attract those who want to secure the status of abortion in American society. What greater testimony to the acceptance of the belief that embryonic human beings are not human can there be than the public’s agreement to spend $3 billion on their destruction for research?
Californians have been sold a bill of goods, and now the taxpayers must invest $300 million a year, money the state does not have, in technology that most likely will prove inferior for therapeutic interventions, but that will make much easier future efforts to clone human beings—even to clone them solely to be used by others. We should expect worse things to come of this.
—Thomas S. Buchanan, for the editors
The journal Stem Cells & Development can be found at www. liebertpub.com/publication.aspx?pub_id=125. The studies referred to are: Kodama et al.,“Islet regeneration . . .” in Science 302 (2003):1223–1227 (diabetes); and Garbuzova-Davis et al.,“Intravenous administration . . .” in Journal of Hematotherapy & Stem Cell Research 12 (2003):255–270 (ALS).
Thomas S. Buchanan is the George W. Laird Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Delaware. He has studied at UCSD, Northwestern University, and MIT, and has held visiting professorships at the University of Western Australia and the University of Aix-Marseille. He has served as department chairman, deputy dean, and institute director, president of the American Society of Biomechanics, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Applied Biomechanics. He is on the Board of Trustees of Saint Katherine College, the editorial board of Touchstone, and the board of The Fellowship of St. James.
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