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Science and politics: Key lessons from the stem cell controversy


Ron Reagan (son of Ronald) called it “The greatest breakthrough in our or any lifetime.”

John Edwards, 2004 US vice-presidential hopeful and part time prophet, predicted that Christopher “Superman” Reeve would arise and walk —provided that religious fanatics did not stop the progress of science.

And when Bush nixed new funding in 2001, Newsweek’s science correspondent Sharon Begley suggested that his compromise might be “a cruel blow to millions of patients.”

Whatever were they all talking about? The fabled fountain of youth? Well, more or less. Actually, they were talking about processing frozen human embryos abandoned at fertility clinics, to use in stem cell research (ESCR).

Essentially, these “snowflake” babies pile up in the freezers of fertility clinics because the couples who use the clinics tend to forget their spares once they’ve scored. But researchers looking for human subjects without legal rights thought of little else.

Time and again, we were told bluntly, scientists NEED them. There is no other way. Hand them over, you anti-science twits!

And then suddenly last summer it was all over. Researchers found that they could trick ordinary stem cells into acting in the same way as embryonic stem cells by adding genes to them (“direct programming”). Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, reported in Cell on success with cheek cells from a middle-aged woman and James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison reported independently in Science on success with foreskin cells.

The famous Ian Wilmut, who cloned Dolly the sheep at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, promptly switched fields, to begin work in this “extremely exciting and astonishing” new area. And Thomson, who was an ESCR pioneer, was heard to say that this is “the beginning of the end of the controversy.”

But just think of the political fallout! Vast sums have been spent on ESCR, notably by the state of California. And now they’re stuck shifting gears.

As I wrote in my upcoming column in ChristianWeek,

Careers in research, health charities, politics, and public relations depend on it. Politicians have demonstrated their coolness by endorsing it or their backwardness by opposing it. Ethicists competed to show why it is right. Christian opposition was vilified. George Bush was singled out for special abuse because he twice vetoing money for ESCR and insisted that skin cells be tried. And now, all that energy—opposing “anti-science”—may be irrelevant.

To do them credit, the lobbyists will go down fighting. Prestigious science journal Nature (450, 585-586 (29 November 2007)) announced that “this is exactly the wrong time to constrain research on human embryonic stem cells.” but provided no clear rationale for why. (For whatever reason Nature is prestigious, it is surely not for editorials like that one … )

Now that ESCR lobbyists can’t simply denounce ESCR as “anti-science”, they argue that ESCR is too far along to abandon. They suggest pursuing both lines of research. In other words, their technology became obsolete before it was commercialized but it is too far along to abandon? Too far along for whom to abandon? Not the taxpayer who already has qualms about it, I trust? (Whoops, correction here, that’s who they DO mean … we should fund it even though we disapprove of it AND it is obsolete.)

First Things editor Joseph Bottum thinks he understands what underlay the enthusiastic support for ESCR in the legacy media. He writes, in the Wall Street Journal (November 28, 2007),

All those editorialists and columnists who have, over the past 10 years, howled and howled about Luddites and religious fanatics thwarting science and frustrating medicine— were they really interested in technology and health, or were they just using all that as a handy stick with which to whack their political opponents?

He goes on to suggest that the cheerleading for ESCR, as opposed to cord blood and adult stem cell lines that were giving better results, was because ESCR props up abortion. After all, if everyone’s health really depends on the death of unborn children, who can object to abortions?

To cap it all, the Nature editors made a startling admission: ESCR researchers would feel relieved if “all the scientific problems had been solved in the papers published last week—abandoning work on human embryonic stem cells would allow them to operate with a clear conscience and without having to defend their work all the time.”

Oh? Really? You mean, the researchers knew it was wrong? All the time, they knew it was wrong? It went against their consciences? I never heard that before. Before this summer, only religious whackjobs had conscience problems about  ESCR.

Science journals are a great way to learn profound skepticism. But quite often it’s about them.


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I would be careful in celebrating the work of Yamanaka and coworkers. They actually used human embryonic stem cells in their work. They are the controls in their experiments. And they needed these controls to characterize how far their cells derived from cheek actually resembled human embryonic stem cells in terms of gene expression patterns, surface antigens etc. ... Therefore I am afraid that their work will even enhance the interest in research on actual human embryonic stem cells to further characterize what makes a cell a genuine embryonic stem cell. Only then they will be able to further optimize their cells to resemble hES cells even more closely. rna
Ironically, the “anti-science” opposition to ESCR has led indirectly to a major advance in science. That's a great point!!!! tribune7
A point that I think deserves mention is that if ESCR had been funded as many have demanded, there would have been much less incentive for Yamanaka and Thomson to pursue their research on alternatives. Ironically, the "anti-science" opposition to ESCR has led indirectly to a major advance in science. dacook
Greetings! I was so pleases to see this in Time, about Dr. Shinya Yamanaka and James Thomson. Finally, true science hits back. And with a knock out punch. Bravo, bravo, encore, encore... I was usually cheering for the other sources of stem cells, but when I heard this, I was ecstatic. Not only could we use adult stem cells, we could reprogram normal adult cell to become embryonic stem cells. This is brilliant. BTW, materialists have no moral standard, in thier view rape and murder are inheritable traits and natural selection made it that way. Look at eugenics and you see the mind of the materialists and their moral standard. Perhaps, I am being too harsh, maybe some of the scientists working on that abomination of science so fervorently in support of abortion and other violations of the principle of life, were just unaware of the moral implications, and conscious objections. Consciences? These people have consciences? If someone has a sound conscience, there is something called conscientious objection. A situation that causes a conflict with a persons conscience with the resulting refusal to move forward with the conflicting proposal or proposition. Anyway these two, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka and James Thomson should be given awards or something, for taking the high road instead of the political underbelly of the self-appointed ethics of the so-called elite so rotten with corruption. To these two, I tip my hat and bow with admiration. I am thoroughly charmed and inspired. Bravo, Well Done, I say. Unlettered and Ordinary
Give money to the right preacher (a.k.a government connected research scientist) And, unfortunately, of course, unlike with honest quack preaching, it was mostly other people's money they were giving. tribune7
This line from the “California” link tells you that the embryonic stem cell project that California taxpayers got duped into funding was as much about politics and money as it was about medical breakthroughs. ESCR was faith healing for secularists. Give money to the right preacher (a.k.a government connected research scientist) and YOU WILL WALK, MY FRIEND!!! THROW AWAY THAT CRUTCH, I say, FOR YOU WILL WALK!!! tribune7
It should now be clear what the hysterical support for ESCR was really about. It had nothing whatsoever in any way to do with making people like Christopher Reeves walk again, healing organ diseases, etc. It was purely about propping up abortion and a materialistic worldview. What else could possibly explain the silence in the aftermath of the incredible discoveries this year by Yamanaka and Thomson? StuartHarris
As California goes, so goes the California taxpayer. Maybe we can add our new boondoggle to one of those slick "Come to California" ads: "The weather, celebrity legislators, progressive thinking - all that and ESCR too!" selectedpete
For those of you who do not work in the Golden State, you are mostly out of luck unless you can finesse the rules that limit the grants to academic and non-profit research institutions in California.
This line from the "California" link tells you that the embryonic stem cell project that California taxpayers got duped into funding was as much about politics and money as it was about medical breakthroughs. If it were really about helping "millions" find medical cures, then they wouldn't limit the funds to instate entities. russ

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