I received an interesting e-mail yesterday from a visitor to the Longevity Meme:
I am interested in your work on longevity and would normally support it. However, I have a real problem with your portrayal of the stem cell debate. Contrary to what is on your site, I believe most advances to date have stemmed [pun intended] from adult stem cells. You state the most promising advances are linked to embryonic stem cells and I believe that is untrue at this time.
I am very concerned about the push to use and create embryos for research and your position on this matter (both the factual claims you made which I believe are misleading) and the lack of concern over moral issues related to use of embryonic stem cells makes it difficult for me to wholeheartedly support or contribute to this longevity project. No doubt you would consider this a form of 'cutting the nose off to spite the face' but longevity is not everything. Any thoughts either on the relative contributions from adult vs embryonic? Any thoughts on how important it is to address the moral issues involved in embryonic stem cell research?
To which I made the following response:
I agree that my more commonly accessed static pages on stem cell research need to be updated on the topic of embryonic stem cell research - those pages tend to lag a little behind my evolving opinions, new science and the political debate. Comments like yours help to bump these items up the priority list.
You'll find a short synopsis of the important part of my position on embryonic research here:
In short, a collection of living cells has to be capable of feeling pain, be capable of thought, or be essential to the use of a meaningful amount of complex data amassed as the result of thought in order for it to have moral worth for me. Heritage and potential aside from these points count for nothing.
I am morally opposed to causing suffering in animals in the course of medical research, for example, but I don't see a meaningful alternative at the present time in order to avoid even greater human suffering - a suffering-free world is something we need to work towards in the long term, but you just can't do it all at once. The embryos used in stem cell research (small collections of cells without any meaningful differentiation) cannot suffer or feel, and are no different in this respect from any other non-essential cells taken from a human. You can probably extrapolate my opinions on other related topics such as abortion from these views.
Regarding embryonic stem cell research from a results-oriented point of view, it all comes down to a matter of time and consequences. I have no doubt that, even if hobbled and blocked at every turn, scientists will eventually understand how to turn any type of cell into any other type of cell - or create cells from scratch if need be. They will eventually understand how all of the most serious diseases do their damage at the genetic and molecular level. The relevant questions are how long it will take and how much very real, otherwise avoidable human suffering and death will be caused by delays - the death toll alone increases by 150,000 people each and every day.
The fastest way to understand cellular processes in order to cure many serious diseases is through embryonic stem cell research. Scientists use embryonic stem cell lines in order to understand the biochemical and genetic progression of many of these conditions - as well as to understand basic cellular processes that still remain a mystery. Adult stem cell therapies of the type being trialed now seem very suited to repairing certain types of tissue damage - but we know that because this research has not been blocked or suppressed to anywhere near the same extent as embryonic stem cell research. It is no surprise that adult stem cell research is far ahead, even in these comparatively crude first generation treatments.
(Although there is a good therapy in the works for spinal cord damage that uses embryonic stem cells:
This research group is aiming for human trials in 2006).
Embryonic stem cell research is very necessary; it is indeed essential for the most promising medical research of the next few decades. My comments above should serve to explain why I see this to be the case.
Insofar as we were talking about your support for increased human longevity, I would suggest that it is perfectly possible to support longevity research and serious anti-aging science while being opposed to specific activities within the broader research community. I certainly don't approve of everything that goes in the name of longevity research around the world, and nor am I representing a unified community voice in any way, shape or form. Finding a place in the community that you are happy with is a matter of finding the right groups to support and expressing your own opinions clearly and loudly.
What do you folks think? What needs to be updated or made more clear on my main pages on stem cell research?