Stem Cell Stampede in the Senate

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) called the debate over stem-cell research “the first major moral and ethical challenge to biomedical research in the 21st century.” At a press conference kicking off this week’s congressional debate, he admonished everyone, "In discussing this science, we must remember not to check our ethics at the door." Even so, he endorsed H.R. 810, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which would allow the use of taxpayer funds to pay for unethical embryonic stem-cell research.

With all the hype and political posturing, it is sometimes difficult to remember that the deliberations should be a fact-finding mission, not a stampede of celebrity and congressional cockamamie; that the debate is, at heart, a discussion of science, not myths.

One of the most puzzling — and cruel — of modern-day myths is the mantra about the wonders of embryonic stem-cell treatments. Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) predicted that research on embryonic stem cells (ESCR) would result in “a veritable fountain of youth.” [1] Because of embryonic stem-cell treatments, a research organization for the aged claimed, the future will be a “world without debilitating costly diseases.” [2]

The myths surrounding embryonic stem-cell research are puzzling because, bluntly, there are no human trials underway on embryonic stem cells; nor have any animal trials shown enough potential to warrant initiating human trials. Further, putting aside the moral concerns, research on embryonic stem cells is not illegal; it is a matter of funding — who will pay for ESCR? Ironically, commercial enterprises are unwilling to invest in the research since the outcomes are so scientifically questionable and, consequently, unprofitable financially. The Bush administration has been unwilling to approve taxpayer funding because of the ethical concerns about the research. In other words, there is too much risk of ESCR becoming a bust on every front — scientific, financial, moral and ethical.

In fact, the hype about the potential of embryonic stem-cell treatment is largely celebrity-driven; the scientists are notably silent in public and cautious in private.

One of the leading advocates of ESCR claims to have “no idea” when such therapies will be ready. [3] A Harvard professor admitted that “no studies have demonstrated the controlled generation of a uniform cell type” such as is necessary for ESCR to reach its potential. [4]

The myths are cruel because they hold out false hope for miraculous cures from embryonic stem-cell treatments when not a single disease has been treated successfully thus far. Further, there is a hidden danger in the ESCR: Some laboratory studies reveal a tendency for the embryonic stem cells to form dangerous tumors. A University of Pennsylvania bioethicist, Glenn McGee, called the potential of ESCR a “Pandora’s box.” [5]

In contrast, 72 different diseases and/or conditions have been successfully treated via adult stem cells, and the improvements in patient conditions have been documented by peer-reviewed scientific publications. Also, significant results have been produced in animal research using adult and cord-blood stem cells applied to spinal-cord injuries, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.

Why then is there such a push in Congress to pass legislation to promote embryonic stem-cell research? Why has there been such hype for creating human embryos to use for “therapeutic research”?

In part, the push for research cloning is a control issue: Postmodernism demands human mastery of all outcomes — that nothing be left to chance or to a “higher power.” Current ideology requires the “scientific” creation of stem cells regardless of the ethical consequences or human risks involved. For the activists hyping ESCR, nothing — neither the health and well-being of the egg donors nor the care and handling of the created human embryos — can stand in the way of so-called progress toward total human control over reproduction.

Nevertheless, the most promising future for regenerative medicine lies with research that focuses on adult and cord-blood stem cells. There, too, lies the ethical high road.

This week, Congress will vote on whether embryonic stem-cell research crosses a moral line to violate the ethical principles about life. [6] The specific bill, H.R. 810, would allow the use of taxpayer funds to pay for embryonic stem-cell research despite President Bush’s previous limitation of research to those cells obtained before August 2001. The President has announced that he will veto the bill if it passes Congress. The American public — proving once again that it is savvier than those in the spotlights and on the screens — has indicated its opposition (48%) to federally funded stem-cell research that destroys embryos and its support of adult stem-cell research (57%). [7]

Sen. Specter warned that those who oppose ESCR research will “look foolish, look absolutely ridiculous” in retrospect. A saner voice, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), noted that it is unnecessary to “treat humans as raw material.”

Those folks chasing ESCR have nothing but empty promises and ever-illusive hopes; those focusing on adult and cord stem cells have solid scientific results and treatments that have produced measurable benefits on 72 diseases.

ESCR, for all its hype, is a mirage of myths — the triumph of activism over science.

[1] Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.), Congressional Record, March 16, 2005, p. S2764.

[2] “Stem Cells: Small in Size, Big in Hope,” the Alliance for Aging Research.

[3] Dr. Jose Cibelli, University of Michigan, quoted in Jonathan Borg, “Stem Cells: A Long Road Ahead,” The Baltimore Sun, March 8, 2004.

[4] Charles Vacanti, “In Tissue Engineering, Embryonic Stem Cells May Not Be the Best Way to Go,” Science, Vol. 18, #22, Sept. 22, 2004.

[5] Glenn McGee, as quoted in Technology Review, Massachusetts Institute for Technology, in “Stemming the Tide: Hard Cell,” The Wall Street Journal Europe, Aug. 3, 2001.

[6] Congress will also vote on two other, less controversial, bioethics bills:

1. S.3504, the Fetus Farming Prohibition Act. This ban would prohibit exploiting women to obtain the necessary fetuses to harvest embryos for research purposes.
2. S.2754, the Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act. This measure would force the federal government to find ways to get embryonic stem cells without destroying human life.

[7] International Communications Research Poll, May 2006.