June 23, 2005

Stem Cell Reality Check

Here is an interesting MSNBC interview with James Thomson, the first scientist to isolate and culture human embryonic stem cells. It contains some interesting admissions. I've included some of the highlights below, along with my comments.

Some of Thomson's pronouncements might seem surprising: that supporters of stem-cell research are overestimating the prospects for transplantation cures, that the current stem-cell lines aren't well-suited for such applications anyway, and that there's no need to resort to therapeutic cloning right now — or perhaps ever.

Critics point out that embryonic stem cells are not being used in any clinical applications yet, while alternatives such as adult stem cells figure in scores of therapies. Thomson acknowledged that the field was still in its formative stage: "There have been companies that have gone into stem cells, but nobody’s made any money."
Much has been made, especially by the media, over the embryonically derived stem cells even in the face of the many adult stem cell therapeutic successes. Thomson does not deny the shortcomings of ESC research.

It’d be very nice to clear up [the misinformation] as much as possible. You can still make an informed choice and be for it or against it, but at least it’d be based on the real facts. I guess the news media aren’t really the media to educate. The news media failed in that role. … I don’t know how to change it, because every time I have an interview with some guy and try to go through what the science is, they talk about curing Alzheimer’s.
Note that Alzheimer's is not considered a viable candidate for stem cell therapy in spite of it's continued use as a dangling carrot.
There are 400,000 frozen embryos in the United States, and a large percentage of those are going to be thrown out. Regardless of what you think the moral status of those embryos is, it makes sense to me that it’s a better moral decision to use them to help people than just to throw them out. It’s a very complex issue, but to me it boils down to that one thing.
It is a factor worth considering, but I do think that the status of the embryo is germane to the discussion. If they are not persons, then there is no debate; you can do anything you want with them. If they are persons, then we need to rethink the idea that they are just "going to be thrown out." For example, I've got a lot of stuff stored in my garage that I don't want. Should I throw it away or give it to Goodwill? That's a relevant discussion unless I find out that I've got some priceless antiques in the lot, then it's a whole new ball game.

If the embryos are valuable persons, then perhaps we need to step up programs like this, which attempt to find these "things" a home. If Thomson thinks they are persons, but wants to put them to utilitarian uses nonetheless, then perhaps he would also consider making organ donors of the thousands of death-row convicts, since they are just going to die anyway.

That’s separate from creating embryos. That offends a lot more people, and I can understand why. You’re creating something that’s a tool, and you’re making a tool out of this thing. I haven’t seen polls, but just in my personal conversations, using things that are about to be thrown out offends almost no one, including fairly devout Catholics – whereas actually making something into a tool offends a much larger percentage of the population.
But if the existing embryos are not valuable human persons, then the "tool" that you're making is not either. And if they are, then the whole tone of this debate must change -- the "just trash anyway" mentality presupposes non-personhood.

If you create an embryo by nuclear transfer, and you give it to somebody who didn’t know where it came from, there would be no test you could do on that embryo to say where it came from. It is what it is.
FYI: by "nuclear transfer" he means "cloning." Here he admits that there is no clinical difference between a conventionally produced embryo, a clone for "reproductive" purposes, or a clone for "therapeutic" purposes. An embryo is an embryo. Consequently, the moral concerns over the treatment of this embryo -- be it abortion or stem cell harvesting -- logically and consistently apply.

The trouble is that most of these transplantation therapies are going to take a while to get to, and my personal guess is that there will be other technologies that go around the need for nuclear transfer.
So, he's admitting that this stuff may be way down the road, and he's also admitting that it is not a panacea, i.e., there are other viable alternatives to embryonic stem cell therapies via cloning technology. This, contrary to Ron Reagan Jr.'s spectacle of disinformation at last year's Democratic National Convention. Note: you can find my reply to Ron's speech here, which also serves as a good overview of the embryonic stem cell debate.

In a kind of “silver lining to the dark cloud” thing, it’s almost better that Bush was elected. President Clinton did not fund this research. It’s nice to yell at the republicans, but moderate Republicans have been some of the biggest supporters of this. Even though it’s a compromise, and even though the compromise does not represent good public policy, it got the field going, it got federal funding going for the first time.
Uh oh, are we our own worst enemy?

Nobody can actually isolate and expand and grow [adult stem cells] in useful ways. But we can already make blood in very reasonable quantities from human embryonic cells.
This is the most discouraging claim made in the interview, but I am not at all confident that it is an accurate one. Note, for example, this article and this one, which suggest otherwise. And if someone at his academic level is ignorant of (or being dishonest about) the potential of adult stem cells, then there is little hope for the media and the teaming masses.

For the latest news on stem cell research see this resource, which makes a point to highlight the alternative breakthroughs that do not compromise human life.

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