Well, the stem cell research news has been flowing thick and fast the past week or so - some nice science results have been announced. On the other side of the honest worker/parasite on society divide, the political debate seems to have energized itself to the point of disconnection from reality. So perhaps we should start with a reminder as to why we should support all stem cell research, adult and embryonic:
1) The aim of stem cell research is to produce a biological repair kit, tools that will allow age- and illness-damaged tissue to be repaired or replaced. These tools, coupled with effective cancer therapies, will greatly extend our healthy life spans and bring cures for all the most common degenerative diseases.
2) It is probably the case that scientists would eventually make as much progress using only adult stem cells - several extra intervening steps would be required, but it is conceptually possible. It is widely agreed that progress towards a full biological repair kit would be much faster due to embryonic stem cell research.
3) Time matters a great deal - more than 100,000 lives are lost worldwide each and every day precisely because we don't have a biological repair kit complete with therapies for the most common age-related conditions. There simply is no sane counterargument to this point. Speed is of the essence.
On with the research news, starting with this interesting fact: cancers have stem cells too.
Researchers have discovered cells that continually replenish leukemia tumors. Killing these infinitely renewing cells could be key to halting the disease.
The promise of this line of research can only be realized, Weissman said, by studying adult stem cells as well as embryonic stem cells, which are controversial because an early embryo is destroyed when researchers remove stem cells from it. While in this study volunteers could provide samples, that won't be the case for all types of disease. An alternative is to take the stem cells from embryos that carry a genetic defect for specific diseases.
"There are whole areas of tissues you can't get at, but which human embryonic stem cells almost certainly will develop daily," Weissman said.
Scientists at the Reproductive Genetics Institute, a private clinic in Chicago, are also studying stem cells to discover the origins of disease. They have isolated 12 new stem-cell lines from genetically flawed human embryos, providing stem cells that will specifically develop seven diseases, including two forms of muscular dystrophy, thalassemia, Fanconi anemia, fragile X syndrome, Marfan syndrome and a type of neurofibromatosis. Couples undergoing in vitro fertilization donated the embryos after the clinic performed prenatal genetic screening.
A single type of primitive stem cell transplanted from donor mice gave rise to both blood-forming and bone-forming cells in recipient mice. This finding, by investigators at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, appears in the Aug. 10 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
The discovery suggests that this primitive cell could one day be the basis of new medical treatments to replace bone that has been lost to disease or injury, the researchers say.
As I noted at the Longevity Meme, the recent approval of a specific embryonic stem cell research project (including therapeutic cloning) in the UK has led to some interesting commentary from Peter Singer:
We think research using adult stem cells should be encouraged, but it's too early to know whether human adult or embryonic cells will prove superior for treating patients ... Although Canadians support therapeutic cloning, Ottawa won't likely reopen its new reproductive law. Then, when patients elsewhere are successfully treated using therapeutic cloning, Canadians will beg Parliament to change our law -- too late.
Personally, I think it's nuts that medical progress towards working regenerative medicine has been so held up and slowed by politicians and the regulatory impulse that the approval of a single therapeutic cloning research project aimed at curing diabetes makes world news.
Diabetes, by the way, has already been cured in mice using embryonic stem cell therapies, as has Parkinson's. There is no doubt at all that this UK project will result in a working cure for diabetes in humans - it's just a matter of time, money and hard work. Here is an interview with the scientist in charge, Austin Smith:
Professor Austin Smith, 42, is the director of Edinburgh University's Institute for Stem Cell Research, which is recognized as a world leader in this promising new area of science. Stem cells, taken from embryos, are the basic building blocks from which tissues and organs grow. These pluripotent cells, whose development potential hasn't been fixed, have the potential to revolutionize medicine by offering ways of repairing diseased and damaged body tissues.
William Saletan has written a rather shady sort of article on stem cell politics and research - characteristic of political debates. I think that Chris Mooney does a good job of picking it apart, so I won't attempt to go one better:
The latest piece from Slate's William Saletan, on embryonic stem cell research, really gets my goat. I know Saletan (vaguely at least) and have nothing against him, but I'm afraid he's gone overboard in searching for something contrary to say on the question of embryonic stem cell research.
The person whose wisdom really sticks out for me on the "hype" issue is Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, who spoke at a 2004 Biotech Industry Organization conference I attended last June in San Francisco. "Hype is only a matter of time" when it comes to embryonic stem cell research, Baltimore explained. In other words, we're at the point now where scientists known enough about embryonic stem cells to know that if they just continue with basic research, the cures are going to come. How long that's going to take is unclear; there may be many unexpected challenges along the way; and some projected cures might not materialize. But scientists wouldn't be so committed to this field if they didn't have strong grounds for that commitment. Saletan thinks he's being wise in denouncing the Democrats' "religious" commitment to the idea of cures, and calling John Kerry a "faith healer," yet the promise of embryonic stem cell research has a firm scientific basis.
Is Saletan suggesting that the economics don't support investing in embryonic stem cell research? If so, that's just nuts. If you do a cost benefit analysis of embryonic stem cell research, as the California ballot initiative has done, you find that the research could easily pay for itself in terms of reduce healthcare costs down the road. Bring on the cost benefit analysis! Bring on the economics!
Then Saletan makes the predictable Alzheimer's point--denouncing the "fairy tale" that embryonic stem cell transplant therapies could be used to treat Alzheimer's. Again, Saletan just doesn't get it. As I have explained with respect to Alzheimer's, embryonic stem cell research isn't just about therapies. From the standpoint of basic research and learning more about the disease--knowledge that could eventually lead to cures of a non-transplant nature--embryonic stem cell research does have significant promise in the Alzheimer's area. That's why proponents keep on bringing up Alzheimer's; that's why the Alzheimer's Association, California Council, supports the California stem cell ballot initiative.
I've never understood a set of religious principles that attach so much importance to unfeeling, unseeing blastocysts and so little to actual living, suffering human beings -- children with diabetes, or middle-aged adults enduring the body's breakdown through Parkinson's, or adolescents condemned to a wheelchair because of a car or diving accident. And I certainly don't understand a 21st-century superpower that devotes billions to building smart bombs to destroy life efficiently but refuses to fund the research that could save or enhance the lives of millions of its citizens.
No wonder Mrs. Bush didn't have anything more persuasive to say about her husband's position on stem cell research. It is a ludicrous policy for which there is no enlightened defense.
This is actually a good example of the disconnect between the political debate over stem cell research and the real world. The public funding issue is not a problem at all in my eyes. Federal funding accounts for perhaps 30-40% of medical research in the US, meaning that there would be no shortage of private money if the research community were left alone to get on with things. The big problems for stem cell research - and especially embryonic stem cell research, but also any research involving therapeutic cloning - are varying degrees of criminalization at the state level and the ongoing attempts by the US administration to ban therapeutic cloning at home and at the United Nations.
This constant threat - the US has been a single delayed Senate vote away from a full ban on therapeutic cloning for some time now - has the effect of scaring away private investment and younger scientists from the field. We can see the results now; countries with much smaller medical research establishments are slowly getting the work done ... but we are now five years behind the point that could have been reached. Five more years of 100,000 preventable deaths each and every day. Think about that for a while.