Progress in medical science - and that most interesting portion of medical science that relates to extending the healthy human lifespan - is not an easy matter. But it would be a good deal easier and more rapid than it is at the present time if we could just cut down on the level of self-inflicted hurdles and caltrops. As in every area of human endeavor, it seems that people with the best of intentions and the worst of intentions inadvertantly conspire to drag us all down.
We'll start with a straightforward one: patents, those pieces of paper by which you use government force to obtain money from other people who are doing far more than you to advance a particular field. Though in fact, as with all forms of taxation, it usually works far better at suppressing the field as a whole than at lining your pockets - if you want to predict the results of any policy, you have to follow the flow of incentives. Why do something expensive when you can do something cheap? And thus, the exodus begins.
So can someone own the cells that make up what is important about a human embryo? And if so, do we have to pay them every time we make our own embryonic cells, every time we make a medicine or other innovation from embryonic cells, and even when we use the cells to teach?
At least at the blastocyst stage, the answer is essentially yes.
Basically, if it looks like an embryonic cell, you'd better pay up. And if you try to make something out of your own embryo - yes, the one you made with your own body, from your own body - well, hope you have good lawyers.
The protection of patents is supposed to extend to "things under the sun made by man." There has yet to be a serious challenge to the absurdity of patents on disease genes, and the even more absurd notion that the ability to find, to discover, constitutive parts of an embryo means that you own them.
The belief that the system of patents in its platonic, intended form (for whatever definition of that term you happen to support) is fine and dandy - i.e. that it isn't still a form of taxation or theft by government, enriching the few at the cost of the many, and suppressing progress by incentivizing people to work elsewhere - is another form of hurdle we throw in front of ourselves.
But onwards. You might have heard the recent news that scientists are seeking permission to use cow eggs and human DNA to advance our understanding of stem cell science. The normal suspects are making the normal song and dance about "hybrids." All nonsense. The real crime is that a scientist has to ask permission before setting out to help people through bettering biotechnology; progress is not encouraged by the boot of bureaucracy and regulation upon its neck.
Take an egg (a cow’s in this case), remove all the DNA, so you effectively have an empty shell. Put the DNA you want to clone (a human’s) into the egg. This then grows into an embryo. However, as the DNA of this embryo is almost entirely human now, the embryo would be a human embryo, not a mixed cow-human creation.
This research may also have important implications for organ repair. Cloned stem cells could replace the damaged cells. In a study announced this week on heart attack patients, the stem cells will be extracted from the patients’ bone marrow and injected straight into the heart, where it is hoped that they will then help to repair the organ.
My group at King’s College London is interested in creating cloned human embryonic stem cell lines from individuals with genetic forms of diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and spinal muscular atrophy.
Although to some the thought of using an animal egg may seem gruesome and unnecessary, it is the best solution that we can come up with for the egg shortage in cloning research. The Human Fertility and Embryology Authority (HFEA) does not permit egg donation for research purposes. At the moment, our only source are eggs that fail to fertilise in fertility treatment, and such eggs are hard to use.
The whole egg donation regulatory mess is fit for a post unto itself; it's a wonderful example of Medieval attitudes towards women and commerce transposed into our era. Scientists are, often as not, just as bad as the regulators when it comes to this sort of thinking. More caltrops strewn in their own path:
I am opposed to young women donating eggs for money. I do not feel it is appropriate to encourage women to undergo a risky and invasive procedure for which they receive no direct medical benefit and where most of the donated eggs are wasted.
Everyone has an opinion, it seems, but no-one wants to offer the potential donors a chance to express theirs in the free market. What a mess people make when given the opportunity to write rules backed by government force, rather than peacefully try to persuade others to see things their way. The one thing that ends up rather stomped beneath all this is, of course, the best and most effective way forward - the very thing that would leap to the top if unrestrained by regulation.