Tuesday, October 25, 2005

How Many Hoops Must a Reasearcher Jump Through....

October 25, 2005

Stem cell research has gotten one step closer to dodging the bullet of popular opinion thanks to American researchers at a biotech firm and the University of Wisconsin. Nature reported last Sunday that the two teams have discovered a way to sidestep the religious right’s complaints about stem cells taken from aborted fetuses by implementing the same process used to do very early genetic testing on embryos created in fertility clinics. The technique is used to remove a single cell from an eight-cell embryo without destroying its developmental potential, and the individual cell can then be cultured into a line of stem cells with no babies dead by implication. Until this research came to light, no one knew whether blastomeres could provide viable specimens or not; it was common practice to wait to begin retrieving stem cells until the initial cell had doubled about nine times.

On the one hand, pharmaceutical companies are hesitant to invest the gargantuan sums of money necessary to make stem cell therapy a viable treatment in the midst of such controversy. In the single most heavily regulated area of medical research, this discovery is great news. The availability of Christian-friendly stem cell lines that are of higher quality than the few pitiful leftovers Bush declared acceptable in 2001 means such research is much more likely to receive the funding needed to launch this promising new technology. On the flip side, though, these researchers have been forced to forego more than four years of valuable research on the technology itself to avoid the torches and pitchforks of the religious right.

The Byzantine route taken to reach this point has been a massive waste of time forced by politics and superstition; the technique is unlikely to yield medically useful results. The goal of stem cell therapy is to culture organs and other tissues which match the DNA of the patients who need them. With a genetically identical replacement, doctors could completely eliminate the risk of rejection. Unfortunately, the stem cells gathered using this new method will match only the people who grow from the embryos used to generate them. This means that if I wanted to use this therapy, I’m about 23 years too late to start. The goal of this research is not to advance the therapeutic value of stem cells; instead, this is a measure purely to provide a qualm-free supply of stem cells with which to experiment.

Interestingly, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has taken a different route in an attempt to avoid the wrath of the Minions of Falwell. Rather than looking for a way to retrieve the cells without interfering with the developmental cycle, MIT researchers simply engineered the ability to grow an umbilical cord out of the zygote they intended to use for research purposes. The cells they remove can then be repaired and used as research materials. The logic goes that they’re not killing a human because the specimen providing the cells is incapable of coming to term anyway. When I read this, I had to laugh. Can you imagine any self-respecting Bible thumper being satisfied with this method? “First we damage it, then we take what we want and fix that. The rest we throw away, and it’s okay because we stopped it from surviving in the first place.” HA! Not even I buy that one, and I’m rooting for their side in the first place. The controversy surrounds the potential of a collection of cells to become a human being, and MIT researchers are still consciously and intentionally destroying that. Nice try, guys!

Completely aside from the suffering of millions of Americans with ailments which could be treated with stem cell therapies, America’s position as world leader in medical research is completely shot. South Korea has been advancing by leaps and bounds, recently announcing plans to dump $30 billion into the creation of a national stem cell bank. The Koreans have successfully cloned an Afghan Hound (named Snuppy, from “Seoul National University puppy”) and were the first in the world to successfully create exactly the genetically matched stem cells American scientists have only now jumped enough hurdles to work on. The catch is that the Koreans did so by cloning the patient and collecting the stem cells when the blastocyst had reached the size of about 150 cells, destroying the specimen in the process.

Stem cells can be used to treat everything from Alzheimer’s to heart failure. Researchers at the University of Minnesota have even succeeded in using them to create immune system cells that fight cancer. Those howling about the ethical quandary involved in the technique necessary to take advantage of these fantastic therapies have put themselves in the philosophically indefensible position of arguing for the rights of a clump of cells with merely the potential to become human. An embryo reaches the 200-cell blastocyst stage at about 5 days, before it even implants itself in the uterine wall, and it has no brain, no sensory apparatus, and nothing even resembling what we generally recognize as the traits of a human being. If these right-to-lifers are so gung ho about “potential” lives, why don’t they consider it morally wrong that there are heterosexual couples who aren’t having sex right this very instant? By this reasoning, it’s downright shameful that there is even one single woman on Earth walking around not pregnant. Now there’s a reductio ad absurdum for you.

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