Just as Congress is about to vote on a bill that would require federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, something has me tempted to join the ranks of those loony tunes who see conspiracies lurking around every corner.
The bill, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007, passed the Senate by a big margin in April. But just as the House prepares to vote later this week, news breaks that scientists have made progress in finding alternative ways to generate cells from other types of cells that can mimic the special powers of embryonic stem cells.
Convenient timing for those who oppose embryonic stem cell research, isn’t it?
It’s certainly not the first time a scientific “breakthrough” has promised an alternative to embryonic stem cells just as funding issues were under debate. It has happened so often that even the wolf is no longer listening to the boy crying out, “there are alternatives!” Except this time, there is a big difference. There really has been a breakthrough.
Today’s news about other ways to create embryonic-like stem cells, published in the journals Nature and Stem Cell, comes from mainstream, cutting-edge, world-class scientists. This is news worth listening to.
Rudi Jaenisch, a leading expert on cloning, and teams of scientists at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were able to do some elegant engineering in which they genetically tweaked skin cells in mice to reprogram themselves and act like embryonic cells. They used artificial viruses to carry genetic information into a large batch of mice skin cells to turn on certain regulatory genes in the cells that normally only work in embryos. By injecting the reprogrammed cells with markers into early-stage mouse embryos, researchers were able to show that these reprogrammed cells turned into all manner of cells in the adult mice that grew from the embryos. That is exactly what stem cell researchers are seeking — cells that could be manipulated to turn into other types of cells to repair diseased ones in our bodies.
This is very big news indeed. So why bother with a vote in Congress on funding human embryonic stem cell research? Shouldn’t we simply put all of our federal funds into this type of reprogramming research?
End to ethical quandary?
That would make President Bush and others who oppose the destruction of human embryos happy. And those who want to see progress made in trying to cure conditions such as diabetes, spinal cord injuries and Parkinson’s disease should be pleased as well. Ethical dilemma solved!
Well, not so fast. I’m afraid that ditching embryos and jumping to fund alternatives is not the right response to this fascinating news about mouse cells.
This research is promising, but it’s in mice. Many technical hurdles remain for translating this work to human cells. Some of the techniques used by the MIT scientists to isolate embryonic mouse cells are known not to work in human cells. Also, using cells that have been changed by means of viral vectors can pose health risks. This form of gene therapy has proven very difficult to do safely in human beings.
It is certainly true that the reprogramming option in both animal and human cells deserves funding, but so does human embryonic stem cell research.
As much as critics of this field of research would like to have you believe that human embryos in dishes are people, that moral argument is not compelling.
Human embryos in dishes are not people or even potential people. They are, at best, possible potentialpeople.
Frozen embryos in infertility clinics face a fate of certain destruction anyway. The moral case against using them, or cloned embryos, which have almost zero chance of becoming people, is no less compelling because progress has been made in another area of research.
The existence of a new way to perhaps make embryonic-like stem cells is not enough to make frozen embryos and cloned embryos off-limits for American scientists or for research relying on federal funds.
Those in favor of human embryonic stem cell research, and that is the majority of Americans according most polls, including one done by CNN just last month, do not have to change their minds about the morality of such research even when another avenue for creating embryonic-like cells is found in mice.
Explore all possible avenues
If you are an Iraq War veteran stuck in a wheelchair, if you are taking care of your father who is losing his ability to walk due to Parkinson’s, if your child suffers from juvenile diabetes or if you need new skin as a result of terrible burns, you want scientists to pursue all the ethical options available for stem cell research. No one knows for sure whether any of them will work. But it is certain that if they are not all aggressively pursued with generous federal support, then the chance of any line of research ever turning into a therapy is greatly reduced.
The House should pass the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007. President Bush will surely veto it, undoubtedly invoking this latest work on reprogramming adult cells as one of his reasons. Congress should then override that veto.
On the frontiers of science, good news about one promising route should not cause anyone to abandon other possible roads until someone actually gets to where they are trying to go — in this case, the goal is new cures for the sick, the dying and the severely disabled.
Too many lives are riding on this to be fooled into taking the wrong detour.
Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.