Thursday, December 05, 2013

Ding, Dong - Embryonic Stem Cell Research (should be) Dead

For years I have said that embryonic stem cell research is both deeply unethical and a scientific dead-end.  But the prevailing winds of culture were against me and I was dismissed or simply pooh-pooed.  I didn't know what I was talking about, apparently.  People up on their scientific conventional wisdom were of the mind that embryonic stem cell research was a kind of obvious magical cure for all kinds of horrific diseases (at the time, personified by Superman, Christopher Reeve, and Michael J. Fox).  Embryonic stem cells are undifferentiated human cells that could, theoretically, be coerced into any kind of adult cell and be used to replaced damaged tissue as in the cases of severe spinal injury and Parkinson's.  The promises were through the roof.

The catch, however, was twofold.  First, all the significant trials with induced embryonic stem cells created runaway tumors in their host, and in great quantities were deadly.  Secondly, the only way to harvest embryonic stem cells was to kill (or make use of donated dead) fetuses.  A baby had to die or be killed in order to pursue this highly suspect line of research.  It was an obvious encouragement for the abortion industry.

But the word on the street was that we had to do it, we needed to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into it, and that anyone who opposed it (usually those crazy Republicans and/or conservative Christians) were backwards and anti-science.  The alternative being bandied about was the research behind adult stem cells.  These are already differentiated cells (such as stomach and skin cells) that could be harmlessly harvested and then chemically induced "backwards" into the kind of pluripotency promised by embryonic cells.  But, no matter what the research showed, the scientific community's and pop-culture's money was on embryonic cells.

Very quietly, far away from the selective attention of the press, this story showed up titled, "Miracle of Science: 65 Diseases Treated With Adult Stem Cells, Biotech advances could make destroying human embryos for research a relic of the past".  The main thrust of the article is exactly what some of us have been saying for a long time - adult stem cell research is both ethical and scientifically superior.  Though the application of this research is still in its beginning stages, chemically induced adult stem cells (iPS) have real-life, verified cures to their credit, and no babies were harmed in their making.

Some quotes from the article:

They have learned how to reprogram adult cells so that they can do many things an embryonic cell can do. No human embryos are destroyed in the process. Along the way, embryonic stem cells—just a decade ago hailed as the future of medicine—have largely been bypassed. Some researchers still use them, but for now, the future belongs to adult stem cells and iPS cells, which are adult cells genetically reprogrammed to express specific genes.
Every year for the past 10 years, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has funded more adult stem cell research compared with embryonic research. For 2012, NIH grants totaled $146.5 million for embryonic stem cell research, but $504 million for adult stem cell research—a difference of $357.5 million. And the belief that adult stem cells are more promising than embryonic stem cells for therapies is now largely mainstream.

And later, the researcher highlighted in the article notes this about the debate in the past:

Hess said that the early 2000s brought fierce public debate over the ethics of destroying human embryos to acquire stem cells. Researchers and advocates for the use of embryonic cells promised that scientists would discover a miracle cure for Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. "There was a lot of magical thinking going on," Hess said.

This "magical thinking" was so bad that Charles Krauthammer, himself confined to a wheelchair, called out both Reeve and Fox for selling false hope to a lot of vulnerable people.

Part of what is so interesting about this to me is that there was a time when people were being coerced into a point of view based on conventional wisdom and emotion, and almost nothing else.  Their voting habits were being scrutinized on the basis of whether they were going to vote "pro-science" and for embryonic stem cell research, or if they were going to side with the troglodytes and be "anti-science."  It was a big, public deal.  It embarrassed a lot of people into a view they did not hold personally.  And it was all false.

You used to hear a lot about embryonic stem cell research.  Will you hear anything about its demise? No.  Why?  The research is a really big deal and really does have all kinds of promise, so why?  In more cases than not, it might be because to report on the truth now will embarrass those who misrepresented it in the past.

Is it possible for the scientific conventional wisdom to be dead wrong?  Of course it is, and most people who consider themselves "scientific" or scientists of one kind or another would agree.  But they agree in principle.  Disagree with one of their currently held talismans, and you better have thick skin.

Does the work of science have built in fail-safes that are supposed to correct for false views and present views as accurate or true based on research and evidence?  Again, theoretically, yes.  But it doesn't always work that way, in fact, I might argue it almost never works that way on the pop-culture level of science.  Either you believe what the force of conventional wisdom believes or you will become the target of unrelenting personal smears.  And it should be noted that when a point of view begins defending itself with the ad hominem argument, its defenders either have not thought through their reasons for belief or there aren't any to be had.

And, finally, I find it provocative that a point of view on this scientific issue 10 years ago which was informed by good Christian theology alone has turned out to be supported by the research.  Could it be that accurately comprehending and articulating orthodox Christian theology is a clearer, long-term guide to truth in life than scientific conventional wisdom?

Well, now it's time for the long knives to come out.

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