Stem Cell News Roundup - With Actual Science This Time

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.

Continuing progess towards growing bone with adult stem cells:

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.

Cynthia Tucker's latest:

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.

Comments

Reason:

I agree completely. Some embryonic stem cell advocates discount completely the potential benefit that adult stem cells might bring.

That is overly pessimistic. Adult stem cells will almost certainly be of some therapeutic use, and may even provide all the benefits of embryonic stem cells one day.

But the real issue is speed. If embryonic stem cells show more promise in the short run, then there is an ethical obligation to pursue that route.

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at August 13th, 2004 2:20 PM

reason is correct. We simply do not know enough about biology to say if adult stem cells will be able to everything that embryonic ones can or cannot do. Much more research is needed in both areas, without fear or favor.

Speed is of the essence. Everyday, the aging process takes its toll and we simply cannot accept any delays in the comprehensive elimination of aging and death to be distracted with discussions on airy philosophical belief systems. We must secure the open indefinite future for anyone who wants it, then we can have plenty of time for the airy philosophical discussions as we like. Doing this before curing aging is putting the cart before the horse.

Posted by: Kurt at August 13th, 2004 3:06 PM

We surely need new embryonic stem cell lines to understand the strengths and weaknesses of different lines in different therapies.

Private centers for developing new embryonic stem cell lines are popping up at well endowed universities across the country. If George Soros would spend as much money helping to develop stem cell lines as he spends trying to be a kingmaker the cause would be even further along. At least the federal government hasn't followed the leftist Rifkin's advice and banned all such research.

Bill Clinton did not promote embryonic stem cell research, he stalled it in a typically devious manner. There are powerful leftist political organizations that want to stop therapeutic cloning, just as there are rightist organizations opposed to embryonic work. John Kerry is just as beholden to the leftists as George Bush is to the rightists. Don't count on the federal government, no matter who the president is.

Private funds, and funds from governments outside the US (including international organizations) may be needed to jumpstart new embryonic stem cell lines in the US. Don't beat your head against the wall pursuing just one approach.

Posted by: RB at August 14th, 2004 7:43 PM

How we get to where we want to go is as important as the final outcome.

At the present, for example, we could largely solve the problems of Alzheimer's Disease by euthanizing everyone on their 60th birthday. It would basically work if all that matters is expedience.

Using adult stem cells may take more time, cost more money, and provide a greater challenge. But it will be worth it because we not only developed healing technologies but we did it in a way that did not prey on the unborn and sacrifice that potential for an immediate but short term gain.

That "embryo" being destroyed in the name of the immediate gratification of those now living could also be the composer of great music, the mind that one day develops a cure for some dreaded disease, or even a parent who gives love and care to a child. That matters as well.

Bad things often come wrapped in good packages and while the idea of healing disease is worthy of our highest calling the idea that we can pick and choose others, or even potential others, to sacrifice on our behalf reveals our basest nature.

The use of adult stem cells provides the benefits of healing without the overtones of our more barbarous selves. When we can have the best of both why settle for something less?

Posted by: John at August 16th, 2004 10:22 AM

As I've said before, I believe it is something of a pathology in our society that there are so many people who prioritize a few hundred cells more highly than millions of lives.

Posted by: Reason at August 16th, 2004 10:30 AM

'That "embryo" being destroyed in the name of the immediate gratification of those now living could also be the composer of great music, the mind that one day develops a cure for some dreaded disease, or even a parent who gives love and care to a child. That matters as well.'

And that child suffering from diabetes that suffers and then dies 30 years too early, or that adolescent in the wheelchair who doesn't make it to the Olympics, or that middle-aged person with Parkinson's was on track to be the next President, or the next Nobel Prize winnder, or the next defining philosopher of his time, what of them?

You cannot claim that opposing embryonic stem cell research does not make someone just as responsible for causing these people needless suffering and death as supporting said research would make them responsible for causing the death of an embryo. When faced with choosing between causing death, and causing death, people often are unable make such a choice, and try to justify one form of causing death as actually not being their own fault. But it is. To withold someone aid that was readily available is as bad as having caused the harm yourself.

If it were a choice between a couple hundred embryos and a couple hundred fully developed human beings, then the choice might actually be a difficult one to make. But it's not. It's a choice between a couple hundred embryos, and a couple tens of millions of people. The issue becomes even more clear when we consider that embryos may or may not have souls, and we may never know for sure, but EVERY single one of those people whom you would condemn to suffer and die has a soul of their own. Most have a family and friends, lives that are set in disarray due to their loss. On the other hand, the embryos that are donated to science are not wanted and are going to be detroyed ANYWAY, whether you oppose stem cell research or not!

Posted by: Jay Fox at August 16th, 2004 12:18 PM

"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"
I beg to differ, there is almost NO disease that hasn't been cured in mice. Most of these mouse cures haven't lead the researchers to find a human cure (although they may be very instructive). The mouse as a model for ccures is just one step up from the petri dish. Many diseases are easily 'cured' in vitro but are orders of magnitude more difficult in vivo. The same is true when moving between species. Not the least of these is that you can do anything you want to a mouse. Mouse lifespans can be made much longer and disease free by keeping them cold and hungry. Obviously, this is no answer for extending human life.

Posted by: dan at August 16th, 2004 12:37 PM

To Jay et al.

I work in health care and see the debilitating realities of many diseases first hand, every day, all the time. I am acutely aware that people suffer and die. I long for cures to ease their pain and work hard to help their lives be what they can be as aging and mortality take their tolls.

Even in the face of this I am not prepared to say that some must die so that others may live longer, and I resist the dehumanizing argument that makes the extermination of a human okay at one stage or another for what it declares to be some greater human "good". BTW this applies to non-embryonic human life as well.

I know that people are desperate and suffering and I have invested large portions of my life in the work of alleviating just such pain. But I fear the mentality that one person's suffering justifies another's extermination more than I fear a world where aging and mortality take their toll.

This is especially true when there are options, such as adult stem cells, that are available and being used for a good end without any of the moral problems that arise with the destruction of human life (and science has affirmed over and over again that an embryo is human) that is part and parcel of embryonic stem cell research.

Some day the people with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's and Diabetes who I care for and have come to know and love as I share their journey will have new cures for these sad and dread maladies. Imagine what could be done with just the money from one less fighter jet being spent on such good things!

But the way we get to that day also matters for us all. To be human science must be moral, must affirm life, and must exist not simply for the possible results but for the whole of humanity. When this is possible it must be the first, best, and only path. In the case of stem cells and the promise they hold this is possible, it is happening, and it whould be the road we take.

Pax.

Posted by: John at August 16th, 2004 1:29 PM

(Dan, I edited your comment so that the quote would appear - it doesn't like bracket).

You are wrong on a few points - there are most certainly diseases that have not been cured in mouse models. Also, working with mouse models is way and far beyond the petri dish stage of research. Many diseases are species specific - I should have been more careful in saying "the mouse version of Parkinson's" rather than Parkinson's itself. I am very optimistic about diabetes, however, as the root cause of the condition is exactly the same in both mice and humans. Same biochemistry, same missing or non-functioning cells.

Posted by: Reason at August 16th, 2004 1:33 PM

Just a note to Reason. At one time you, too, were just a few hundred cells.

Posted by: John at August 16th, 2004 3:41 PM

"I beg to differ, there is almost NO disease that hasn't been cured in mice."

"You are wrong on a few points - there are most certainly diseases that have not been cured in mouse models. "

There's no contradiction here, of course, though it is being presented as such...

Posted by: David Scott at August 16th, 2004 5:02 PM

John wrote:
"Using adult stem cells may take more time, cost more money, and provide a greater challenge. But it will be worth it because we not only developed healing technologies but we did it in a way that did not prey on the unborn and sacrifice that potential for an immediate but short term gain."

Allow me to translate discarding the (IMHO) "moral high ground" rhetoric: We delay life-saving treatments and the ill folks dying in the meantime are expendable for the purpose of upholding the supposed inviolability of cell balls in a petri dish.

You may not look at it that way, yet that's how it comes across.

John wrote:
"That "embryo" being destroyed in the name of the immediate gratification of those now living could also be the composer of great music, the mind that one day develops a cure for some dreaded disease, or even a parent who gives love and care to a child. That matters as well."

I'm not sure what you're trying to prove here, as the same rationale applies to all kinds of reproductive decisions as well. Yes, maybe if Joe X hadn't procreated with Mary Y on day Z, they would have prevented the birth of the next inventor, composer or loving parent. I wondered if your argument masks a religious notion that embryos are fundamentally different from eggs in that they're supposed to have "souls" while eggs have not, though it appears more like mystifying (IMO) the embryo's potential. In any case, such thought experiments strike me as meaningless speculation about the uncertainties of life. That we should seek to maximize the potential of our children, first and foremost for their own benefit, to lead rich and fulfilling lives, does not force the conclusion that we must maximize the potential of every single zygote. Living by an ideological remix of Monty Python's "Every Sperm Is Sacred" doesn't help nurturing great minds, but ensuring personal freedom, diversified humanistic education, widespread prosperity and -of course- long healthy lives does.

(in the following I'll disregard the "eternal soul" argument since you kept arguing from potential:)

John wrote:
"science has affirmed over and over again that an embryo is human"

...and...

"At one time you, too, were just a few hundred cells."

Not by a reasonable meaning of the word "you" or "me", IMO. Nothing, not the least bit of what ever made up my personality existed at a 200-cell-stage. All I value in any person including myself developed after this early stage, and if embryogenesis had been stopped so early, who would have been able to be unhappy for not being? A non-existent X can't lose something it never had, and if particular person X won't come into being, other persons will instead, without thwarting X's (non-existent) wishes. A person living only in the imagination of those who theorize about its possible coming into being cannot, by its unreal nature, wish or yearn, feel or decide for anything. So how on earth could the destruction of an organism lacking any capacity for feelings, interests, and goals for the future, be as bad as to be similar to the death of actual people? I wholeheartedly agree with Reason: It seems dangerously quixotic to me to value the worship of embryonic potential over the real needs of real persons.

Since we're already pushing the 'theoretical' buttons: How genetically "human", by today's standards, is a person gengineered for indefinite cellular regeneration and endowed with other genetic/bionic upgrades? Given that we're likely headed into a future populated by people seriously varying in physiological and morphological respects, it sort of worries me that people still insist on confusing genetically human organisms with persons.

Science cannot affirm that something is human in a moral sense; it makes tentative statements about the objective nature of things, not about the moral meanings we ascribe to them. Science in and of itself cannot imbue developmental potential with moral meaning, no matter how much you might wish it could. Factual insight informs our moral decisions, but doesn't disburden us of choosing among ideals and ways of dealing with ethical questions.

M.J.

Posted by: M.J. at August 20th, 2004 3:53 PM

MJ

The problem with one facet of your argument is that scientifically you are incorrect. At a 200 cell stage your development is well underway and all things are in motion to move you from embryo to adult and only require the proper environment to realize.

You forget that humans are always in process, always developing throughought their entire lives. You describe what is "you" as that which you can remember, that which has recently more or less helped you to become as you are and will factor in whatever you are yet to become. I would submit that that is a faulty and one dimensional vision of what "you" are.

We know that the physical part of your being was significantly established within nanseconds of your conception. We also know that what occurs in conception is a unique entity, except in the case of identical twins, and genetically different, that is not identical, from its parents. So one part of your is already largely established from the very moment of conception.

The "soulish" part of you cannot be established by scientific means alone and does require a move into metaphysics, but indications from examinations and photographs show that there is such a thing as fetal emotion and there are literally photos of smiling and laughing fetuses, so there is agood probability that before your remembrance some portion of that "soulish" part of you was already in existence. It is not a large jump of logic to consider that it may have been there from the very first moments of your life and indeed there are psychologists and others working hard to determine the effects of genetics on affection preferences, mental illnesses, and such. That work, although, sometimes flawed, is rooted in the understanding that such aspects of our humanity may in fact be tied to the very earliest stages of our lives. What you lampoon as "every sperm is sacred" is taken very seriously by a lot of cutting edge researchers.

The point is this. Advances in genetics have moved us well beyond the "blob of tissue" arguments that often powered the earliest pro-abortion movements yet they are somehow, though soundly discredited, re-emerging in the stem cell debate. The arguments for embryonic stem cell research also carry with them a utilitarian view of humanity that should frighten the sane and give us strong pause before, for the sake of our current ills, we unleash a monster ideology wherein all life is reduced to the sum of its function and its value is determined by those who have power. We've caught glimpses of this kind of world and it is not pleasant to say the least.

Scientists are uncomfortable with talk of morals and ethics because they add dimensions to inquiry that they are neither trained to handle or are measureable, per se, by the tools and methodologies of science. I would suggest, however, that scientists need to comprehend these things so that they have a fuller picture of reality than what can be observed in the scientific cocoon. There are many scientists with a "religious" devotion to the whys and hows of their craft and yet so often that religious fervor blinds them to truth in the same way that some people who are religious have blinded themselves to the possibilities of science. Simply put, science has to understand that simply because something can be done does not mean it should be done and they need to think through not just the momentary rush of discovery and possibility but to the long term implications of what they do and the manner in which they pursue it. After all science has given us many wonderful things but it has also given us weapons of mass destruction, atomic bombs, nazi gas chambers, and deadly waste products that have the potential to kill for centuries to come.

Please know that I am all for stem cell research, but the "how" matters as much as the result. We have to ask "what happens if an embryo is really possessing of personhood?" (and the research is moving towards affirming this). If we don't know for sure would it not be better to err on the side of caution especially when other alternatives are already available? And yes we even need to ask about what kind of brave new world we are going to create when in one small way we have already decided that those who are powerless to refuse can be consumed by those who have the power to decide.

John

Posted by: John at August 23rd, 2004 4:43 PM

John:
"The problem with one facet of your argument is that scientifically you are incorrect. At a 200 cell stage your development is well underway and all things are in motion to move you from embryo to adult and only require the proper environment to realize."

IMO the problem with your reply on the whole is the implicit, arbitrary conflation of moral and factual statements. The plain fact that embryos undergo a developmental program under suitable conditions isn't up for dispute (I didn't argue it, no one argued against it) but assumptions about its moral significance are. We're living in a biological continuum that began billions of years ago, where conception is neither the first nor the last step leading up to a conscious mind. From the genome emerges physiology, from physiology emerges the CNS, from the CNS emerges consciousness. All the aspirations, feelings, goals, wishes, dreams, interests aren't there to be satisfied or hurt before that last step. Pointing out how a zygote is genetically different from an egg doesn't explain why that difference would establish high moral worth or even personal dignity. A fertilized egg is still just as nonsentient as an unfertilized egg and the arguments to endow such a thing with human dignity don't cut it when putting the value of its potential in perspective (more below).

John:
"You forget that humans are always in process, always developing throughought their entire lives. You describe what is "you" as that which you can remember, that which has recently more or less helped you to become as you are and will factor in whatever you are yet to become. I would submit that that is a faulty and one dimensional vision of what "you" are."

I think I'm aware that one's personality is indeed constantly changing throughout one's life. The person I was 20 years ago is for the most part "dead" by now, but I have been in the continuum of an adapting mind all along. The recurring motive here is that balls of undifferentiated cells are outside of that continuum. I don't not remember looking like a see-through raspberry because I've forgotten about it, but because such memories couldn't possibly form in the first place. Counting the mind before it's hatched underestimates the difference between a plan and realizing this plan to the point of a qualitative leap. Analogy:

A computer can compute, a blueprint for a CPU can not.
A brain can bring forth consciousness, a genetic blueprint for a CNS can not.

For the sake of further illustration, to equate the genome with the consciousness is kind of similar to saying a dust particle at the formation of the solar system held the value of a Redwood tree. The properties of energy and matter allowing a tree to exist were already hidden in the dust, yet the realized qualities of the tree weren't present in the simpler form of matter. Even if we knew with absolute certainty that a dust grain would once be part of a tree, I would still argue that the value of the tree is on a whole different level than the value of the dust grain.

John:
"We know that the physical part of your being was significantly established within nanseconds of your conception. We also know that what occurs in conception is a unique entity, except in the case of identical twins, and genetically different, that is not identical, from its parents. So one part of your is already largely established from the very moment of conception."

I suppose you meant "genetic outfit" by "physical part"? In what way is it significant? My genes simply impose technical, practical limits on what I can be and do. That doesn't make my chromosomes the moral essence of myself. A fertilized egg is still but a shell containing an unfeeling, unexecuted outline plan for an organism. No forceful moral implication here.

But let's stipulate for the sake of argument that your statement is really about morals, that is to say, that a newly fertilized egg is not only genetically human, but significantly of human worth like you and me. If that's true then are women using the spiral as a means of contraception to be considered serial killers? Is it more important to salvage hundreds of frozen fertilized eggs from a fertility clinic on fire than rescuing one single person locked in another room of the burning building? Are millions of naturally (!) aborted embryos each year a worse tragedy than any famine or plague in history? Logically valid conclusions....and wonderfully absurd.

John:
"indications from examinations and photographs show that there is such a thing as fetal emotion and there are literally photos of smiling and laughing fetuses, so there is agood probability that before your remembrance some portion of that "soulish" part of you was already in existence."

That's a safe statement given that, for example, behavioral science has shown infants less than 1 year of age who didn't have long-term memory yet to possess some limited (mostly visual) short-term memory. However, first brainwave patterns in fetal devolopment show up in the 22nd week of pregnancy and continuous brainwave patterns are first observed in the 28th week. So the 22nd week is the very earliest that smiling of a fetus might express a basic emotional reaction. Grimaces observed before the 22nd week would be brain stem reflexes because the cerebrum is not yet functionally active. But regardless, fetal development is irrelevant in this context as embryonic stem cells are solely derived from embryos less than two weeks old. No nerve cells - no CNS - no cognition.

John:
"It is not a large jump of logic to consider that it may have been there from the very first moments of your life and indeed there are psychologists and others working hard to determine the effects of genetics on affection preferences, mental illnesses, and such. That work, although, sometimes flawed, is rooted in the understanding that such aspects of our humanity may in fact be tied to the very earliest stages of our lives. What you lampoon as "every sperm is sacred" is taken very seriously by a lot of cutting edge researchers."

Again, your argument bulldozes over the difference between potential and reality. Some mental disorders and aspects of temperament are, to varying degrees, hereditary, but this fact no more suggests that an actual personality was there from the moment of conception than the laws of physics suggest we existed as persons from the moment of the Big Bang.

John:
"The arguments for embryonic stem cell research also carry with them a utilitarian view of humanity that should frighten the sane and give us strong pause before, for the sake of our current ills, we unleash a monster ideology wherein all life is reduced to the sum of its function and its value is determined by those who have power. We've caught glimpses of this kind of world and it is not pleasant to say the least."

For one, it's beyond me why "a utilitarian view of humanity" should lead to "value[s] [is] determined by those who have power" any more than any other system of ethical inquiry. For all I know, the likes of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham were pretty passionately opposed to authoritarianism. And two, alarmist rhetoric is easily turned around. After all, who are "those who have power"? I'd say they're first and foremost the legislators (elected or not) who've banned embryonic stem cell research and somatic cell nuclear transfer techniques in many countries and some U.S. states, sentencing some innocent people to death by means of delaying life-saving medical progress.

John:
"If we don't know for sure would it not be better to err on the side of caution especially when other alternatives are already available?"

That "other alternatives are already available" has been debunked time and again. Basic research needs embryonic stem cells to unravel the mechanisms of switching cell fate and medicine is worlds away from having workable (let alone optimal) adult stem cell treatments for a vast majority of degenerative conditions. Even in treating heart disease, where ASC's have been successful in human trials, it's far from clear that ESC's won't prove superior later on. ASC's so far don't seem to actually turn into heart muscle cells, so there may be more effective ways to treat heart attack than by ASC injections. Ask yourself: Would researchers (by necessity goal-oriented pragmatists in their work) go through the hassle of heated public debate if routes of lesser resistance were readily accessible? Isn't it encouraging that some scientists put their moral obligation to turn the promise of stem cells into actual cures above their career goals, and stem the political pressure to shun embryonic stem cells?

Well, thanks for your input. I hope I clarified my point.
M.J.

Posted by: M.J. at August 26th, 2004 4:33 PM

MJ

Enjoyed your post.

If there is "potential" humanity in an embryo when do you justify extinguishing that potential and on what grounds?

I would suggest that potential and reality are intertwined, the reality exists within the potential, and that potential has to be honored and not subject to the desires, however well intentioned, of another without serious moral and ethical inquiry.

Science struggles with this because many within its worldview sadly dismiss the moral and ethical implications of what they do as products of religion or moralistic thinking and therefore suspect and unworthy of inclusion in the debate.
Unfortunately spiritual people are also guilty of the opposite.

That reasoning about the beginnings of human life and the state of the human person before birth have moral implications is inevitable. Any debate about these issues must include not only the raw data of science but the human thinking of ethics, theology, and philosophy to be whole and wise. As I stated before science unchained from morality, philosophy, ethics, and yes even theology has brought about horrors and that potential remains.

History reminds us show that thinkers who've divorced their thinking about the nature and destiny of humanity from moral, ethical and religious concerns must step outside of the scientific paradigm (that is the current understanding that the world as we know it is a closed system, free from divine or other influences) to develop a morality and appeal to some idealism or nature or force. Failing that all that is available is brutality of the kind that we have see in the Communist world and also in our increasingly materialistic society.

History itself bears witness to the reality of what happens when human beings are viewed only as a means to an end (even by the "spiritual") and when great care is not excercised in these areas. People scoff at the slippery slope but the destruction of those unable to refuse by those who have power always begins at the margins and moves towards the mainstream. If science decides, by its limited worldview, that an embryo has only potential and not reality and is therefore dispensable the projecting of this ideology on the old and infirm (something already being widely practiced) can logically follow and then what? The Third Reich was not birthed in beer halls so much as it was among the German intelligentsia and the Fourth Reich will follow a similar pattern. People hungry for their immediate good deciding that others are in the way of that pursuit and therefore dispensable. I use strong images not to imply that anyone who advocates embryonic stem cell research is a Nazi but rather that if we are not careful we may, in the name of what we conceive to be "good" all end up being that way.

That being said ( a little red meat) I have attempted to remind all of the bright minds who frequent these pages about the moral and ethical implications of what they are by and large supporting. I hope that you think not just about the immediate day of research and study but also about what may result from their actions. I have no apology for that and am saddened by the fact that some seek to dismiss what I say simply because it brings into play dimensions of the human experience that cause the modern scientific mind to trip over itself.

Now, in the news today was the story of doctors from Europe who have used "adult" stem cells from bone marrow to produce a replacement jaw bone for a man who lost his original to cancer. When I read things like this I am awed by the discoveries of science and the potential good that can come from them. I suspect that further advances will be coming and, as one who daily cares for the sick and struggling, I wait for the good things to come.

But I frankly admit to wanting it all, to wanting a good means and a good end, respect for the sacred nature of human life from conception to death and the best that is possible in modern medicine. I am idealistic and yes even spiritual enough to be believe that this is possible and encourage all of you to consider this as well.

I have enjoyed this interchange and wish you all well. I respect your opinions even when I disagree with them and hope for the same in return. Regardless its been a good challenge.

Until then, peace.

John

Posted by: John at August 27th, 2004 2:06 PM

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