Random thoughts about Science and the World

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Stem Cell Research and you

One of the hot topics over the last couple of years has been the controversy of stem cell research. The Bush administration banned it. The Obama administration condones it.

The question is; why should you care?

First, some facts; all creatures have stem cells on one level or another. They are the core of our cellular development and in the embryonic state they do the job of being a “master copy” of every cell the body might need. That means that stem cells can initiate the creation of any cell type that the adult species will need, be it blood vessels, neurons, skin cells or specialized organ cells. This is called totipotency. Mostly embryonic stem cells are used for this kind of research and while adult humans also have stem cells, unlike embryonic stem cells they are usually limited to reproducing the cell types of the organ from which they were harvested.

This makes embryonic stem cells far superior as a research element, but, and this has been the main source of controversy, it requires the creation and destruction of a human embryo. This sounds harsh, but the fact of the matter is that we already have an overabundance of human embryos in the form of blastocysts, basically a collection of generic cells with the potential to become any kind of cell. Some have argued that they have as much in common with human life as skin cells do, however, the opposite side counters that unlike skin cells, these blastocysts have the “potential” for life.

Which is true as far as it goes. However, due to in vitro fertilization (IVF) we have the previously mentioned overabundance of embryos, hundreds of thousands of them every year, which are normally slated for destruction. This means that the potential for human life is lost anyway. These are not someone’s kids that are being picked apart; rather they are unused human tissue that would otherwise go to waste.

So, why are embryonic stem cells so much better than adult stem cells? As noted above, adult cells are severely limited as to what kinds of cells they can reproduce, but that is far from the whole picture. While an embryo at the stage of harvesting consists of almost nothing but stem cells, they are exceedingly rare in adult tissue (about 1 in 1000 bone marrow cells are usable for research or treatment). Embryonic cells also divide faster than adult cells which make them a lot better suited for the production of therapeutic remedies.

The potential for scientific achievement is of course immense and could enhance our understanding of the workings of cells by miles, but the real benefit could be cures, treatments and remedies of an unprecedented scale for a range of diseases and problems. Stem cells have been used to repair damaged heart tissue in mice and practical production of blood for transfusion is on the way. In addition there is hope that this research may in time provide the solution to disabling genetic and neurological ailments such as Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s and others. This may, to use a metaphor, turn out to be the Holy Grail of medicinal science.

There are two main hurdles that we need to deal with on this issue. The first is a morale one and has been the focus of both this text and the argument carried out in various media channels. As Richard Dawkins states in his letter to Tony Blair, science cannot tell you what is right or wrong, it can only tell you how it is. Questions of right and wrong belong in the realm of philosophy and in the hands of the people of society. The only thing science can do in this respect is to encourage consistency and remind us that we cannot have it both ways. We will have to decide at some point what we consider to be human life, whether it is worth more than any other kind of life (and if so, on what grounds) and what we will consider acceptable.

The other hurdle is of a judicial kind and the first tests of our legal system are already on the doorstep. The question is; can you patent life? Can you legalize the rights to something that essentially is a thing of nature? This conflict of definitions is not new. We saw the same kind of confusion when American settlers wished to buy land of the natives who were baffled by the idea that one could own land. Can you, when you get right down to it, own life? This is a matter that will set precedence for years to come, so we better make sure we get it right. The consequences could be much more far-reaching than we imagine.

So there you have it; my case for why stem cell research is something that everyone should know about and care about. I’m not going to suggest any kind of opinion on the matter, only a fervent wish that whatever decision we make, it will be an informed one, based on facts and not fantasy. 

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Superior as a theoretical research element, dangerously inferior as a practical research element. ASC produces cures up the yinyang because they are more controllable and are essentially "native cells" to the body that they're being used on. ESC replicate rapidly... and like a car traveling too fast, are very dangerous. I'm supportive of all non-ESC stem cell research because it has produced results and continues to do so whereas ESC is a "perhaps" with ethical complications. At least in the US, we're in a situation where someone is selling us a diagram of a cure when the cure itself already exists.

See, if this pans out to be general and factual, that is an argument I am willing to buy into. At the moment I consider stem cell research to be very much in its infancy, but if this turns out to be the general case, well, then we will have to take that into account. What I cannot stomach however is the constant appeal to emotional responses, often based in blatant misinformation, that some groups get up to.

Indeed. This issue is one too important for appeals to emotion like getting a beloved crippled actor (like Christopher Reeves or Michael J. Fox) in front of an audience and vowing that if only they can get access to their favorite type of stem cell, they'll cure cripples. Well, the fact of the matter is that non-embryonic stem cells have been productively used in medical treatment for many many years. They help severe burn victims get their skin back, have in fact been used to partly cure paralysis, and have shown promise in helping to treat tragic illnesses like Parkinson's Disease. Yet, with umbilical and adult stem cells curing illnesses, helping the crippled to walk and the blind to see, there is a massive political screaming for access to embryonic stem cells which, when last used in an attempt to treat an illness (Parkinson's, in fact), produced horrifying results because the fast-replicating ESCs went out of control. I think that the most rational position for someone opposed to federal funding for ESC research is encouraging non-ESC stem cell research and then using the record of success (which, given past results, can be rationally expected) to show that there isn't any reason to debate an ethically tricky line of research to achieve something that has already been accomplished.

Yes, it would seem both camps have gone for the emotional argument in this, which is really pathetic. This is all about science and in science we deal with facts, evidence and reproducable results. Sure, we would all love to see Reeves walk again, and while I personally don't see any reason why we shouldn't experiment on embryonic stem cells, we still need to go with what works. That's the bottom line here, and if it turns out that treatments based on ASC works better then that is what we should use.
I still support doing research on ESC though, mainly because there is still a lot we don't understand about how cells divide and how they form various types of tissue, but we can cross that bridge when we get to it. Right now, people want cures, and we need to find the approach that works better.

We would have liked to see that before he died, true. But since the treatment has worked before (I know of at least two instances), it can be replicated. Unfortunately, Reeves probably was too ill near the end to enjoy the benefits.

Granted, ESCs are interesting but there is a worthwhile point to consider: in the United States, there was never a law against doing research on ESCs. What people were screaming for was taxpayer money to be diverted to that research the same way it is for provably successful lines of research with minimal ethical complications (non-ESC research). My preferred approach would be to use private initiative to show that ESC has merit comparable to that of ASC and USC (adult and umbilical respectively) or can do things that are likely not possible for the alternatives before public funding is even considered. It's one thing to approach American taxpayers saying "ESCs are provably able to do these things that have a high probability of being impossible to do with alternative methods"; approaching them with "we want you to fund ESC research because we think that it's possible to do with them what we can already do with others" is a completely different kind of argument.

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