Saturday, December 01, 2007

Stem Cells and Politics

In the tussle and bustle of stem cell politics, there are those who make their stand for political reasons, and there are those who are more likely to make their stands for ethical and scientific reasons. With the recent breakthrough in stem cell research, not only can the scientific and ethical requirements be met, but some of the political views are now dinosaurs, on their way to extinction.

At least one political dinosaur on the NYT editorial board has decided to look directly into the plummeting comet and shake his or her fist. Here I stand, I can do no other! The scientific reason researchers have backed embryonic stem cell research so vociferously is that it has the potential of pluripotency—their stem cells can possibly be harvested and chemically manipulated to match any problem in any human body. The political reasons for backing embryonic stem cell research are much more fuzzy. Ethically, of course, the debate is difficult because, as the editor so calmly put it, “Religious conservatives deplore the research because tiny, days-old embryos are destroyed.”

The editorial is full of high-minded language about scientific potential and possibility. And it is true. Researchers in the field of embryonic stem cells see a great deal of possible application. On the other hand, researchers in the field of adult stem cell research have seen over 80 real-life actual applications and solutions to a wide range of disease and sickness. So far, embryonic stem cell application has resulted in no known cures, and a lot of benign tumors (Embryonic stem cells, when actually applied, don’t turn off their growth rate at the right time; they become tumors). I would argue that those in the shoes of the NYT editor are not backing embryonic stem cell research for scientific reasons.

Ethically, there is literally no debate over the use of adult stem cells. And all smarmy dismissals aside, there are serious ethical questions about the destruction of embryos for their stem cells. The current breakthrough not only has the benefit of the science of embryonic stem cells, it has the benefit of the morality of adult stem cell research. If the new research pans out, it is literally the best of both worlds.

And politically? My view is that in the dance between politics and truth, truth should lead and politics follow. For this poor dinosaur, however, their politics lead them into the La Brea Tar Pits of history.

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