March 14, 2009

Maybe It's the Rhetoric That Makes the Stem-Cell Issue "Surreal"

Justin Katz

The change in our nation's direction on embryonic stem-cell research would concern me a little less if it weren't expressed in such poorly conceived terms:

As important as the stem-cell policy change is "the paradigm shift in making sure that research in this country is based on sound science and not any kind of political ideology," [U.S. Rep. Jim] Langevin said.

It shouldn't take but a moment's thought to come up with an example wherein most Americans would agree that ideology (read: "morality") ought to trump even sound research. Placing in lab coats those cannibalistic fetishists about whom we periodically hear gives a caricature of the possibilities if, for example, we join the "right to die" movement with the "right to experiment" philosophy. As with war, we do well to place the broader society in ultimate command of the practitioners.

Mr. Langevin's fellow guest at the the VA Medical Center, Harvard Stem Cell Institute Executive Director Brock Reeve, perpetuates misconception — or at least the reportage makes that appear to be the case:

Stem cells are the precursor cells that can transform into any cell in the body. Embryonic stem cells are especially adept at this. Scientists hope that they can be used to replace nerves in a paralyzed person's spinal cord or insulin-producing cells in a diabetic's pancreas. But Reeve cautioned, "It's going to be a long time before scientists and doctors know how to control any cell," he said. Embryonic stem cells may cause tumors, may be rejected by the patient's body and may migrate to places they're not supposed to go.

In point of fact, scientists have already provided doctors with methods of treatment related to adult stem-cells. Indeed, I won't find it surprising should those successes begin to be treated as if they ought to be credited to the new freedom of science from ideology now that the supposedly historic moment has come and gone.

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I could be wrong about this, but I don't see how "Embryonic stem cells are especially adept at this" is a scientifically meaningful statement. As far as I know, there haven't been any limits identified on transforming reprogrammed adult stem-cells that are any more stringent than the limits on the embryonic cells.

Posted by: Andrew at March 14, 2009 10:32 AM
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