Stem cells with promise

November 20, 2007 | 46 comments
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Two different scientific teams have independently discovered they can convert normal human cells into “embryonic” stem cells without destroying or cloning embryos. For those of us who realize that “embryo” is just shorthand for an embryonic person, this is great news. See the NYT and the Washington Post

Yuval Levin says that this solution to the embryo-destroying stem cell problem is a model for other ethical problems. I don’t see it. Ultrasound just shifts the terms of the abortion debate, but it doesn’t make the debate obsolete. I suppose the abortion controversy could go away if we eventually can take embryonic babies and raise them in artificial wombs just as easily as we can abort them. But that solution itself could be a problem ethically.

And some problems are just intractable. If you think there’s some kind of ethical problem with parents radically gene editing their kid to rewire his brain structure into something alien, to take an extreme example, you probably won’t be happy if scientists discover they can accomplish the same result with surgery and hormone therapies. The only way science could “solve” this problem is if it failed to make these technologies available in the first place.

The embryo-destroying stem cell controversy was always a controversy about the means to reach an end that everyone agreed on. Science could avoid the controversial means, and now it probably has. But when we disagree on ends, we disagree.

But lets not suck lemons. This is great news.

Update: For more on these new stem cells, see here and here. Some crowing here. Some thoughts on how moral change usually happens once it gets easy here.

46 Responses to Stem cells with promise

  1. James on November 20, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    This is a really interesting development in molecular biology. The use of embryonic stem cells in problematic not only because of the ethical and moral issues but also because there are control problems with embryonic lines. They have a tendency to get out of control and form tumors that other types of stem cells do not seem to have. That alone is going to be a problem for getting therapies approved in the U.S.. I can just see a future FDA medical officer sweating bullets over the risks and coming down on the side of caution and rejecting the application if the risk factor is at all significant.

  2. John Mansfield on November 20, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    I don’t expect much from non-embryonic stem cells. If stem cell therapy becomes useful at all, I believe it will be found that stem cells that are a completely blank slate will not be the most effective to transplant. What will be better, and for some purposes the only thing that will work, will be to harvest cells at an intermediate stage of differentiation, cells that will produce, say, neurons but not insulin-producing islets or vice versa. And nothing works to produce such cells like a short few-week pregnancy. The number of pregnancies intentionally aborted I would guess far outstrips the number of spare embryos produced in IVF labs. The argument that they exist anyhow so they may as well be used will be applied to aborted embryos and fetuses as it is now to IVF spares.

    An additional consideration: The health of harvested embryos will matter, so they will be extracted in a living state, not poisoned in the uterus.

  3. BrianJ on November 20, 2007 at 12:58 pm

    Just so you know—embryonic stem cells are studied for basic science questions, in addition to the possibility of using them in therapies. Also, part of the catch-22 here is that if we don’t study embryonic stem cells, then we will never know whether we have “reprogrammed” a cell to become a stem cell.

  4. Seth R. on November 20, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    If it looks like a fish, to me it’s not much different than a fish.

    Hardly the most nuanced or scientific view, I know, and it also doesn’t mention my view that the pro-creative process should be respected, but there it is.

  5. James on November 20, 2007 at 1:39 pm

    #3: BrianJ, if a team can successfully reprogram a cell line to perform a therapeutic function with few or no side effects it won’t matter if it is a “real” stem cell line or not. The principal investigator will be hitting the trifecta of a Lasker and double Nobel’s in physiology and medicine.

  6. Rosalynde Welch on November 20, 2007 at 3:01 pm

    Wow, John, I find the scenario you describe above—aborted fetuses harvested and recycled for research—to be horrifying.

    Another reason why the tide might turn against embryonic stem cell research (and I personally am not clear on the ethics of the question), aside from the promise of substituting adult stem cells, might be the mainstreaming of reproductive practices like embryo adoption. It’s much easier to get that “embryo” = embryonic person when it’s your own much-desired embryonic child.

  7. AHLDuke on November 20, 2007 at 3:12 pm

    I don’t have the least problem with the use of stem cells in research (though I can see some worries about abuses in the harvesting of stem cells). However, I am glad that there may be some method to get similar results and perform similar experiments without upsetting the fundies (not that upsetting the fundies is not its own joy). Now lets see if this pans out.

  8. Nate Oman on November 20, 2007 at 3:14 pm

    I like lemons…Mmmm…

  9. BrianJ on November 20, 2007 at 5:33 pm

    James, #5: “…perform a therapeutic function….” As I said in #3, therapeutics is not the only goal of scientific research.

  10. BrianJ on November 20, 2007 at 5:35 pm

    (P.S. I don’t get the trifecta: Lasker + Nobel = 2 awards; there are not separate Nobel prizes for physiology and medicine.)

  11. Matt Evans on November 20, 2007 at 9:15 pm

    Maybe the researcher will get the peace prize.

  12. Adam Greenwood on November 20, 2007 at 9:58 pm

    That’s horrific, Mansfield. My hope would be that the public would respond better to moral appeals when its tiny aborted fetuses instead of microscopic embryos. The ick factor goes up.

    I think the public is pretty comfortable with the fact that there’s some kinds of pure knowledge about human biology that we can’t ethically acquire, Brian J.

    Hopefully you can find some other way of getting a rise out of us fundies, AHLDuke. Perhaps abortion?

  13. WillF on November 20, 2007 at 10:21 pm

    It is also currently Wired Magazine’s lead story. So it is officially cool.

  14. WillF on November 20, 2007 at 10:23 pm
  15. Adam Greenwood on November 20, 2007 at 10:31 pm

    The only way this could be an issue is if they’re actually creating embryos this way, which would be creepy and wrong, but it doesn’t sound like it.

  16. Timer on November 20, 2007 at 11:46 pm

    This is an interesting passage from NYT article:

    “The new discovery was preceded by work in mice. Last year, Dr. Yamanaka published a paper showing that he could add four genes to mouse cells and turn them into mouse embryonic stem cells. He even completed the ultimate test to show that the resulting stem cells could become any type of mouse cell. He used them to create new mice, whose every cell came from one of those stem cells.”

    If I understand this correctly, it means that you can insert genes into a mouse skin cell and “deprogram it” (by inserting a retrovirus that adds in the genes) to a stage from which it can grow into an entire mouse. And this research may allow the same to be done with people.

    To put it in a somewhat glib way, if every skin cell has the potential to be a person, am I killing millions of people every time I wash my skin? Or can we just replace “life begins at conception” with “life begins with the insertion of a retrovirus into a skin cell and/or the subsequent induction of the new cell to form a blastocyst in vitro”?

    I’m not sure I’m clear on the science here. Anyone understand more details?

  17. bb on November 20, 2007 at 11:56 pm

    #2. That would be a truly disgusting and distressing scenario. For numbers, there are ~400,000 frozen embryos, and ~800,000 abortions performed each year. Fortunately it is a scenario that I have never seen proposed and that I think would be unlikely. Embryonic stem cells have historically been isolated very early (blastocyst stage), which is before implantation and therefore before most women are even aware they are pregnant. Abortions occur well after this developmental stage, so 1. I’m not sure embryonic stem cells could be isolated at this later stage and 2. even if they could, I think it would be rather difficult given how most abortions are performed (ie having to isolate them from either fetal and maternal tissue). Much easier to extract from a frozen blastocyst. Also, in the end, the final goal has always been to derive stem cells from the patient who would eventially benifit; either through cloning (not as scary as it actually sounds) or what these researchers have done. Obtaining an endless supply of stem cells from either frozen embryos or aborted fetuses has never been the end-game of the scientific community, but having a primary source to perform initial studies has obviously been an issue.

    Overall though, I would agree, this is exciting news and will hopefully open up progress in a field that a number of us have been waiting for for a long time.

  18. bb on November 21, 2007 at 1:17 am

    Actually, didn’t read #2 fully until just now. He is talking of harvesting semi-differentiated fetal cells, not undiffernetiated stem cells. I understand the concern better, but I still haven’t heard of anyone proposing it as an option at this point. I’m not sure if the comment was made in light of a number of studies where mice fetal cells were transplanted into adult mice with promising results. These have been done due to convenience and the difficulty in getting stem cells to differentiate into usable adult or precursor cells at this point. I was involved rather peripherally in one of these studies, and the results were really used as proof of principle that if we can get stem cells to the right point, they can have great therapeutic potential. I have not personally seen people advocating that human fetal tissue be used in a similar manner, but if some people are then I would definately be disappointed to learn otherwise.

  19. Matt Evans on November 21, 2007 at 3:19 am

    Timer, a pluripotent stem cell can become any type of cell. That doesn’t make them organisms, like embryos are, capable of development. Embryos make stem cells; stem cells don’t make embryos.

  20. Loyd on November 21, 2007 at 4:24 am

    “For those of us who realize that “embryo” is just shorthand for an embryonic person, this is great news.”

    This statement seems so loaded. Can the rest of us realize that “embryo” is just shorthand for an unrecognizable mass of cells without any form, structure, characteristics, mental faculties, etc that we normally associate with ‘persons’ – masses of cells resulting from a chemically structured biological reaction of a sperm fertilizing an egg – masses of cells that frequently do not attach to the uterus and are expelled completely unbeknownst to anyone – masses of cells that are usually only mourned as a lost opportunity of conception, and not as a lost child.

  21. Adam Greenwood on November 21, 2007 at 9:16 am

    Its chemically structured biological processes all the way up.

  22. John Mansfield on November 21, 2007 at 10:26 am

    Many have expressed the thought that my fetal stem cell scenario (comment #2) would be to horrifying to be accepted. I’m doubtful it would be. Urological research, for instance, depends on aborted fetuses because the tissue of that part of the body deteriorates too rapidly and can’t be distinguished in adult cadavers. This is from the material and methods section of a recent paper on “The structure and innervation of the male urethra” (Text bolding is mine.):

    We studied ten normal male human fetuses (114–342 mm, or between 14 and 40 weeks of gestation) obtained by therapeutic or spontaneous abortions during autopsy. [...] We chose ten fetuses, between 14 and 40 weeks of gestation, because at the 15th week of gestation the fetus shows a clear differentiation between striated and smooth muscles, while the fetus at term can be macroscopically dissected and the basic pattern of the sphincter is established at this stage.

    That’s the material. From the discussion section:

    In the fetus, relatively thick nerves are surrounded by a small amount of connective tissue, and these nerves are much easier to identify than those of adult specimens. In fact, pelvic nerve-sparing techniques applied in adults are based largely on microscopic investigations of fetuses

    Patrick Walsh, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins, pioneered these studies of aborted fetuses and used the knowledge he gained to benefit thousands of prostate cancer patients. He is a highly respected researcher and physician.

  23. Rosalynde Welch on November 21, 2007 at 11:24 am

    “masses of cells that are usually only mourned as a lost opportunity of conception, and not as a lost child”

    Many infertile couples would take vigorous exception to this assertion. (In the end, of course, the ethics don’t depend on our emotional reactions—or lack thereof— either way.)

  24. Adam Greenwood on November 21, 2007 at 11:44 am

    You may be right about the tolerance of the public for what’s horrific, Mansfield. But for one the experiments you describe aren’t very well known. For another, this research doesn’t ask people to knowingly incorporate tissue from an aborted baby into their own bodies.

    But what makes this worse is that, as I understand it, you need your own cells. So you’d have to make a clone of yourself, let it grow, then abort it and harvest it. Deliberately creating babies to abort them will horrify a lot of people, God willing.

  25. BrianJ on November 21, 2007 at 12:08 pm

    From the Levin article: “This kind of outcome has been the hope behind President Bush’s stem cell policy. In fact, the President spoke about this very same technique—reprogramming skin cells—in a speech back in July of 2006, and earlier this year signed an executive order to encourage this kind of work (Thomson’s team, in fact, was supported by the NIH).”

    Well good, Gore and Bush share something in common: Father of the Internet meet Father of Cell Reprogramming. (The fact that Thomson’s group was funded by the NIH isn’t going to garner much favor among scientists; like most godless beasts, we tend to bite the hand that takes away our food.)

  26. greenfrog on November 21, 2007 at 12:34 pm

    I’m truly at a loss to understand why a pluripotent stem cell is considered to be different than an embryo, in terms of value, potential, and all the rest.

    Both cells are entirely, 100% alive.

    If handled in a particular way, both cells are entirely, 100% capable of dividing and developing into a 100% human human.

    It seems highly probable that, if handled in a (different, and not yet fully mapped-out) particular way, both cells will be entirely, 100% capable of dividing and developing into a constituent part of an already-existing body (e.g., as part of a severed spinal cord).

    Why should I love the one and care not a moral whit about the other?

  27. Adam Greenwood on November 21, 2007 at 12:45 pm

    Is it really true that if one of these stem cells were in the womb it would grow into a fetus, baby, child, adult, angel, archangel, god, etc.? If so, then as far as I’m concerned its an embryo. But I don’t think its so.

  28. greenfrog on November 21, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    While I admire the consistency of concern, let’s remember that the stem cells in the news were developed from skin cells of an adult human.

    So you could add one line to my previous email:

    Why should I love the one (whether embryo or stem cell with potential to become an embryo) and not care a moral whit about the other (living skin cells on my arm that have every potential to become pluripotent stem cells and, accordingly, embryos)?

  29. Timer on November 21, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    “Is it really true that if one of these stem cells were in the womb it would grow into a fetus, baby, child, adult, angel, archangel, god, etc.? If so, then as far as I’m concerned its an embryo. But I don’t think its so.”

    My understanding of the NYT article is that this is precisely what was done with mice, but popular articles on science tend to be a bit vague… Furthermore, precisely what stimulus is required to make the stem celll grow into a fetus (does it have to “differentiate” into an egg cell first) is not clear to me…

    So the question remains: is an ordinary skin cell an embryo (because it can be turned into a stem cell with a retrovirus, and them possibly into an egg cell and a human)?

  30. Adam Greenwood on November 21, 2007 at 4:04 pm

    Greenfrog, I still don’t think that these pluripotent stem cells have “the potential to become an embryo.” Even so, if you don’t recognize a distinction between the value of a human life and the value of a living human skin cell, we have nothing to say to each other.

    Timer,
    that’s an excellent question. I’ll see what I can find out. The actual language I’m seeing, though, is

    The new discovery was preceded by work in mice. Last year, Dr. Yamanaka published a paper showing that he could add four genes to mouse cells and turn them into mouse embryonic stem cells. He even completed the ultimate test to show that the resulting stem cells could become any type of mouse cell. He used them to create new mice.

    I don’t see the language you quoted about every cell in the mouse body coming from one of these pluripotent cells.

  31. Timer on November 21, 2007 at 6:33 pm

    I tracked down the reference to the paper that describes the creation of a cloned mouse from a reprogrammed stem cell. You can see http://newswire.rockefeller.edu/?page=engine&id=412 for more discussion of the process whereby ES cells “can generate live late-term embryos when injected into tetraploid blastocysts.” But if I understand correctly (I had to look up the meaning of a few term), the bottom line seems to be that, yes, a mouse skin cell can be induced to develop into an entire mouse, but the process is not as straightforward as simply transplanting the skin cell into a uterus. It involves transfering the reprogrammed skin cell into an embryo made up of tetraploid cells (cells with four copies of each chromosome); the tetraploid cells give the ES-cell a home to develop in, but they do not contribute to the final mouse produced.

    I’m seeing the same thing you are now in the NYT article (though what I saw before I simply cut and paste from the article as posted then); I’m not sure why they changed the wording mid-day, but I could speculate that it may be that a researcher cautioned them that it would be hard to prove that _every_ cell in the new mouse body came from an ES-cell, since the tetraploid cells contribute the placenta, etc., and in some cases at least some of their DNA seems to be present in the final mouse (see the linked article).

    In vitro reprogramming of fibroblasts into a pluripotent ES-cell-like state.

    Wernig M, Meissner A, Foreman R, Brambrink T, Ku M, Hochedlinger K, Bernstein BE, Jaenisch R.

    Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02142, USA.

    Nuclear transplantation can reprogramme a somatic genome back into an embryonic epigenetic state, and the reprogrammed nucleus can create a cloned animal or produce pluripotent embryonic stem cells. One potential use of the nuclear cloning approach is the derivation of ‘customized’ embryonic stem (ES) cells for patient-specific cell treatment, but technical and ethical considerations impede the therapeutic application of this technology. Reprogramming of fibroblasts to a pluripotent state can be induced in vitro through ectopic expression of the four transcription factors Oct4 (also called Oct3/4 or Pou5f1), Sox2, c-Myc and Klf4. Here we show that DNA methylation, gene expression and chromatin state of such induced reprogrammed stem cells are similar to those of ES cells. Notably, the cells-derived from mouse fibroblasts-can form viable chimaeras, can contribute to the germ line and can generate live late-term embryos when injected into tetraploid blastocysts. Our results show that the biological potency and epigenetic state of in-vitro-reprogrammed induced pluripotent stem cells are indistinguishable from those of ES cells.

  32. BrianJ on November 21, 2007 at 6:38 pm

    Timer, think this way: does a yoke and white make an egg? No, a complete egg is yoke, white, and shell. Stem cells are not a complete embryo.

  33. Timer on November 21, 2007 at 6:58 pm

    “Greenfrog, I still don’t think that these pluripotent stem cells have ‘the potential to become an embryo.’ Even so, if you don’t recognize a distinction between the value of a human life and the value of a living human skin cell, we have nothing to say to each other.”

    Adam, I think Greenfrog is pointing out that there is subtlety in the definition of “human life” here. In definitions of “human life” it is often said that a sufficient condition for X to be a “human life” is this: given the right external stimulus, X can grow into an adult human being.

    But if you accept this as part of the definition of “human life”, you might be forced to conclude that every individual skin cell is a “human life.”

    Even though I would not personally go as far as Matt Evans and Adam Greenword in asserting that embryos comprised of just a few cells deserve the same protection — morally speaking — as adult humans, I do feel that they deserve more respect and protection than mere skin cells. So, even for me, the idea that skin cells themselves might be “embryos” (rather loosely speaking) presents an ethical puzzle.

  34. Adam Greenwood on November 21, 2007 at 7:47 pm

    Spermatozoa and eggs have always had ‘the potential for human life’ given the right external events (i.e., fertilization), so this kind of argument that we can’t make distinctions is nothing new.

  35. bgh on November 21, 2007 at 7:54 pm

    We are entering into an interesting age to think that any cell in the body could be manipulated to generate (in part) new life. However, I think we should recognize a distinction between what the properties of a cell are and how they are actually functioning.

    For example, a ES cell derived from any source has the pluripotent properties that would allow it to differentiate into any cell in the body, and in the context of existing within a viable embryo, would differentiate into a significant part of the human body. However, as a cultured cell in a petri dish, it is no different than any other cultured cell in how it behaves. It grows and divides into new ES cells just as a cultured skin cell would. It will not grow into an embryo as a cultured cell, and as mentioned would require significant manipulation to be part of the development of a new organism. Unmanipulated, they behave similar to cultured cells derived from any other source.

    The unique thing about a cultured ES cell (prior to this research) is that with the right signals from the culture environment, the ES cell can morph (in theory) into a skin cell or any other type of cell. Now it appears that other cells from the body can be cultured and manipulated to do the same way. I would have to agree with what others have said in that I do not see a huge difference between an ES cell that is cultured and a skin cell that is cultured, although I must admit I have always felt that way. However, the tricky issue of only being able to access ES cells from viable embryos may be overcome with this new research.

  36. Timer on November 21, 2007 at 11:32 pm

    “Spermatozoa and eggs have always had ‘the potential for human life’ given the right external events (i.e., fertilization), so this kind of argument that we can’t make distinctions is nothing new.”

    Well, if you’re the sort of person who views that the sperm and egg cells are already sacred on their own — and that they gradually obtain additional sacredness and moral significance throughout the various milestones of development (fertilization being one of many) then I agree that this gives nothing new.

    But there has been a point of view in the air that their is something special about conception — that three seconds before the sperm and egg unite they are just cells (no ethical problem destroying or manipulating them if it serves a purpose) but three seconds after fertilization they are a “human life” (under some definition) worth expending tremendous resources to protect.

    I would think that people who hold the view that conception has a unique role as THE beginning of life (is there a name for them?… How about “conceptionists”?) would be challenged by the existence of routes to personhood that do not involve conception. Or maybe conceptionists are harder to impress than I realize. :)

  37. Adam Greenwood on November 23, 2007 at 4:47 pm

    Yuval Levin writes:

    Adam, this is just a misunderstanding of the study published yesterday.
    One of the ways of testing animal stem cells for pluripotency is to inject them into an embryo of that animal, and see (genetically) if the stem cells end up playing a part in forming the various systems and organs of the resulting fetus. This helps prove the pluripotency of the cell. Yamanaka did that with his MOUSE iPS cells, about which he published earlier this year. That’s the sense in which they contributed to the formation of an embryo–they were injected into an existing embryo, they did not themselves PRODUCE an embryo.

    He obviously didn’t do that with the human cells (since that would mean injecting them into an embryo, transferring it to a woman, and then
    aborting) but he did with mice. In either case, it does not show these cells are totipotent–i.e. can produce an embryo. They decidedly are not.

    I hope that helps. Best,
    Yuval

  38. Adam Greenwood on November 23, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    No such thing as ‘conceptionism.’ “Life begins at conception” is just a shorthand. People who hold that view aren’t concerned about conception per se, they are concerned with the kind organism that you’re dealing with. In their view an embryo is genetically and developmentally a human organism but a sperm, an egg, or a stem cell isn’t, no more than a harvested organ is. Though conception typically would be the event that creates the embryo, it wouldn’t have to be. It seems quite possible that “somatic nuclear transfer,” or cloning, could form an embryo with only an egg involved. And I suppose its possible that one day we might be able to transform an ordinary skin cell into an embryo in the lab, just as we’ve now discovered that we can transfrom it into a stem cell.

  39. Timer on November 23, 2007 at 11:04 pm

    If you read the links in #31 (which I don’t know whether the author of #37 is aware of) then it seems that what is going on is a bit more interesting. The tetraploid embryo is not capable of normal development on its own. It is, you could say, “developmentally but not genetically” a viable mouse embryo. But a tetraploid embryo with a modified skin cell injected into it becomes a viable embryo.

    However, when the mouse grows up, is it more accurate for the mouse to say “I began life as a tetraploid embryo” or “I began life as a modified skin cell”? Genetically, the former makes no sense since the mouse inherits no genes from the tetraploid embryo (although there may be exceptions to this; see link in #31). It makes genetic sense to say the latter, but it is also correct that with current technology the modified skin cell could not have produced an embryo on its own. A third alternative, of course, is “My life began when a modified skin cell was injected into a tetraploid embryo.” This is also reasonable, but it allows for life to begin at a much more advanced stage than “conception.”

    Now, maybe these are kind of arbitrary distinctions that don’t reveal anything more than how you like to define your words and have nothing to do with morality. On the other hand, if your sense of moral obligation depends on working out precisely what it means to be “genetically and developmentally a human organism” then a human analog of this question (were one to ever arise) could be an interesting ethical puzzle.

  40. Adam Greenwood on November 23, 2007 at 11:10 pm

    Timer, I had sent Mr. Levin the link in #31. I agree that there are interesting issues. How is a tetraploid embryo usually formed?

  41. Adam Greenwood on November 23, 2007 at 11:34 pm
  42. BrianJ on November 24, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    Adam, #41: The article you link to is really pretty good with its technical explanations (the computer disk analogy works very well), but it’s gets the interpretation all wrong. Some examples:

    “Secondly, these ethical concerns can (largely) be avoided by the Bush policy on stem cell research….” That is only true if you are on Bush’s side to begin with. Millions of Americans saw/see embryonic stem cell research as a means to treat or cure numerous diseases. In their view, needlessly* hindering that research would prolong suffering, and needlessly prolonging someone’s suffering is unethical. The Bush policy did/does not address these concerns. (*obviously, this is the real debate: are embryos a person or just a thing; the article glosses this point.)

    “This allowed for federal funding of research using embryonic…lines that already existed…. [These] lines were good enough for most purposes….” Not according to the vast majority of scientists working with those lines. Why, oh why, would scientists struggle for years against politicians and the uncertainty of bench work in order to create more embryonic stem cell lines if the ones they already had were good enough? Saying that the existing lines were “good enough” is either misinformed or dishonest.

    “…but since these permitted stem cell lines had ever so slightly different chemical properties and might conceivably behave slightly differently, some scientists wanted to be able to destroy new embryos in order to do research on new lines, without having to fill out all the paperwork to get non-federal funding.” In the case of this article’s author, I’m going with misinformed. First, who is he/she to judge how “ever so slightly different” the existing lines are? The author admits, “I am only a layman myself”—rightly said. So listen to the experts when they say that those differences are important. Second, what kind of paperwork does the author think a scientist must fill out “to get non-federal funding”? Does he/she think NIH grants are easy to write? I’ve applied for both federal and private funding and the processes were identical.

    “Federal funding for this type of research is entirely unproblematic and requires no new legislation, though things like the HOPE Act might grease some wheels.” The HOPE Act—and legislation like it—hinders science. The NIH normally applies a peer-review process: people who actually understand the science determine where limited funding should go. The HOPE Act puts politicians in that role, carving out a designated chunk of money for a particular type of research.

    “A great deal of credit for this must go to President Bush, since if he had not restricted funding in the first place, it’s quite possible that the line of research that yielded the recent discovery would not have been pursued with such urgency, only yielding results at a far later date.” Dream on. How does the author link Bush’s policy to the Japanese research team? But the author did get one thing right: Bush definitely “restricted funding”—not just for embryonic stem cell research but for biomedical research across the board.

  43. James on November 24, 2007 at 10:31 pm

    BrianJ; #42 – This is exactly where the ethical controversy lies.

    ““Secondly, these ethical concerns can (largely) be avoided by the Bush policy on stem cell research….” That is only true if you are on Bush’s side to begin with. Millions of Americans saw/see embryonic stem cell research as a means to treat or cure numerous diseases. In their view, needlessly* hindering that research would prolong suffering, and needlessly prolonging someone’s suffering is unethical.”

    This passage illustrates the deep divisions in our society on this particular research. There is not a consensus in this country on the ethics of using fertilized human embryos as raw material for bioresearch or pharmaceutical raw materials. Many, many people feel rather strongly that it is deeply, morally wrong. Other people with equally strong feelings see no moral issues with this kind of research. The question is sufficiently charged to the point that public opinion can be defined differently depending on how the question is worded. The leadership of the Church is silent on this issue and has not defined doctrinally the point at which life begins. Given that there is not a national consensus, it is prudent for the state to take a reserved and cautious approach to the question.

    This whole controversy is symptomatic of a broader question. Just because a research question can be formulated, should that research be pursued? Are there research avenues that just should not be considered because of the moral implications of that research?

  44. Adam Greenwood on November 25, 2007 at 10:03 pm

    Brian J.,
    when you are writing long rebuttals of articles that are merely linked, and only linked in comments, not in the body of the post, and when you’re rebutting arguments that weren’t even the point of the link, you’re doing the internet equivalent of gnashing your teeth. Thanksgiving is still in our short term memories. Be happy.

  45. BrianJ on November 26, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    Adam Greenwood, I’m not sure how to take your comment (#44) as anything but condescending and dismissive. I thought most of my comments were well within the scope of the original post, not to mention the direction the discussion had taken. And the apparent implications of your Thanksgiving comment are just rude. If you don’t want a conversation with me—or if you don’t want to discuss the issues I want to discuss—then there are more polite and straightforward ways of making that clear.

  46. Adam Greenwood on November 27, 2007 at 9:32 am

    On the sidebar, Kaimi Wenger links to a NYTimes article discussing some of the technical challenges that lie ahead:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/27/science/27stem.html?_r=1&8dpc&oref=slogin

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