Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Stem Cells off the Table

A couple of scientific papers, published today, have, I think, essentially removed the issue of embryonic stem cell research from the 2008 election. The breakthrough, which is well described in both the New York Times, and the Washington Post, was developed essentially simultaneously by two research groups, one in Japan, and the other in Wisconsin. In essence, the results are that it is possible to create pluripotent stem cells (which previously had been thought to be only available from embryos) from ordinary human skin cells, by introducing four genes into the adult stem cell. What is especially nice about this research finding is that this means it would be possible, perhaps, to take some of my skin cells and transform them in such a way as to grow me some new nerves, or even a whole new heart. That means I could, at least in theory, be given a completely new heart that is a perfect genetic match to me (since it grew from my own cells) and thus I would not need any anti-rejection medication. Of course, what was reported in these two scientific papers today is only the first step on a very long road toward growing our own replacement organs, but it is a great step, and it means we can go down that road without having to use embryos. As you may know, President Bush has vetoed a couple of bills that proposed funding embryonic stem cell research, and has also acted to ban federal funding of embryonic stem cell research apart from that done on a limited number of existing embryonic stem cell lines. In one sense, some may see today's news as vindicating his stance, and I think that is a reasonable way to view it. In all this is great news in that science has managed to find a morally acceptable way to investigate the potentially huge benefits of pluripotent stem cells.

There has been some political response to the news today. Not surprisingly, there was a very upbeat comment from the White House. To my mind, a critical quote from that is the following:
The President believes medical problems can be solved without compromising either the high aims of science or the sanctity of human life. We will continue to encourage scientists to expand the frontiers of stem cell research and continue to advance the understanding of human biology in an ethically responsible way.

We need to consider the ethical implications of scientific advances more than we typically do, and I hope that the stem cell issue will prove to be a good case study for this. Romney can claim a certain prescience on this issue because of his remarks on this topic in June of this year. Fred Thompson had a comment on this topic, and he noted, quite correctly, that adult and umbilical cord blood stem cells have far more successes to their name than do embryonic stem cells:
There is exciting news for patients today. In yet another breakthrough for adult cell research, scientists have made normal human skin cells take on the relevant properties of embryonic stem cells. That is in addition to 73 breakthroughs for adult and cord blood research to date. There are still no embryonic stem cell breakthroughs.

Anyway, regardless of who makes political hay on this topic, it is good news, and once again congratulations to those scientists who made the breakthrough happen.

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