Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Stem Cell Debate


Democrats better hurry and pass their bill to use government money to destroy human embryos before science obviates the need.

Oops, too late

We have heard for years how EMBRYONIC (can't use adult or cord blood cells, have to sacrifice embryos) stem cells were going to cure every malady known to man (except global warming which can only be cured by Socialism, evidently). Funny thing that the cure is always right around the corner. This is close to the same con pulled by faith healers and charlatans for ages. "If you just had enough faith, Christopher Reeve would get out of that chair and walk. Except for in the case of the Faith Healers, they just want YOUR money, not a blank check to the Government Treasury. And you know it would be a blank check, "Don't short our funding and force us to drag out Michael J. Fox again!"

Again, call me a skeptic and uninformed if you wish, but I at least want to see some, or at least any tangible results, before we start handing out government checks and destroying embryos, something that a great portion of the American taxpayer considers a terrible wrong. Most liberals snit over the fact that a child might receive a quality education from a Catholic nun somehow using government funding, so the concept is not that hard to understand.

Now it appears that we don't have to destroy embryos to get the special magical brand of stem cells after all. Do you think this will be reflected upon, before a full embryo destroying bill is put before congress? Nope, because the purpose never was completely about obtaining cures through stem cell research. At least part of the measure was to desensitize the public about destroying embryos in general, and to soften us up for the eventual announcement of cloned fetuses (which are, at least at this point, looking unnecessary as well.)

To demonstrate this, look at the end of the article.

Dr. George Daley, a Harvard University stem cell researcher, said that finding raises the possibility that someday expectant parents can freeze amnio stem cells for future tissue replacement in a sick child without fear of immune rejection.

Nonetheless, Daley said the discovery shouldn't be used as a replacement for human embryonic stem cell research.

"While they are fascinating subjects of study in their own right, they are not a substitute for human embryonic stem cells, which allow scientists to address a host of other interesting questions in early human development," said Daley.

He began work last year to clone human embryos to produce stem cells.

So here we have the discovery that breaks the Gordian knot and makes the miracle of Embryonic Stem Cell research available almost controversy free, and he is thinking "Hold on a minute, this may throw a crimp in my plans to clone an embryo." Is this the guy you want to give the keys to the Treasury to? Scientists are not Gods. They are just as self-interested and in many cases selectively honest as any oil executive. The discovery of Dr. Anthony Atala and his fellows has the potential to upset the whole apple cart of investment, funding, and grants. Do you really believe that the science community as a whole will give up a gravy train in the name of ethical science? Do you think that the cloning industry which is so close to convincing huge swaths of voters that "cloning is the answer" will sit back as an ethical and most definitely cheaper method of harvesting stem cells is introduced?

We should at least get a good look at which politicians Big Cloning has bought and paid for. Look for Dr. Atala and his colleagues to get savaged by their fellow scientists and then we will also know it was never just about embryonic stem cells.

9 comments:

sirocco said...

Well, since you asked for it, I will call you a "skeptic and uninformed" on this topic.

The first thing you should be aware of is the ability to culture embryonic stem cells for research purposes is only 10 years old now -- I.e., it's only just over ten years since this was first successfully done. Intentionally or not, you make it sound like it's been much longer than that.

By the time this was just getting into position for "serious" rsearch, 2000 rolled around and Federal government funding for this research was made largely unavailable. Other resources (California state funding, for example) have been found, but that took further time.

Meaning truly serious research on the possibilities of embryonic stem cells is only 5-6 years old, and has been somewhat handicapped at best. Given the time needed to do preliminary research, publish that, then animal tests, publish that, get reviewed, then get approval for human tests, do the testing, publish results, get review ... it's a 12-15 year process. Expecting to see major results by now simply is unrealistic.

Having said that, we _are_ seeing results. For example, about a year ago researchers had success taking paralyzed rats and, using embryonic stem cells, "curing" the paralysis. They have now applied for approval to start some limited human testing. Simply getting that approval will take at least a year.

This (and a few other similar examples) is the "first wave" of approaches which are looking for human-test approval. To the best of my knowledge, none have yet reached the stage of actually being approved to begin human testing.

Having said all that, the possible use of amnio stem cells is extremely exciting. There is no question a less controversial source of pluripotent cells would be a boon to all involved. However, it's not been shown (and, in fact, is quite unlikely) amnio stem cells will have the full range of capabilities of embryonic cells ... I.e., even if amnio stem cells can address many of the same diseases/issues that embryonic cells can, there will likely still be some which can _only_ be addressed through the use of embryonic cells.

(Note: everything in the above paragraph is speculative. It could turn out that amnio stem cells have _greater_ capability than embryonic stem cells. That's not the way the smart money would bet, however).

To address a couple other points you bring up (and some you don't):

1. Even I, about as atrong a supporter of embryonic stem cell research you are likely to meet, find the notion of cloning embryos for the sole purpose of using them in stem cell research.

2. The Senate introduced a bill yesterday to extend federal funding of embryonic stem cell research beyond the 20 lines initially approved. The bill would allow the use of embryos currently in fertility clinics which are unwanted and slated to be destroyed to be used for research purposes.

I can't see why, if the embryos are about to be destroyed anyway, they shouldn't be allowed for research purposes ... but I would love to see what others think.

3. I want to pre-address one of the favorite (false) arguments of those opposed to embryonic stem cell research, the "If it's so great, why isn't there private funding for it?" question.

First of all, there is some private funding.

Second, and most important, numerous socialogical studies have shown the need to generate profit is a very strong disincentive for this type of research. Without some relative surety of success and profit (the shorter term the better), private firms are loathe to make the necessary investments.

On the other hand, governments can (and regualrly do) make investments in such research, as the benefits to society outweigh the financial investment.

The development of space technology is a prime example of this.

You can bet that once stem cell research does show definite human benefits, you will see private research by a wide range of firms.

Framer said...

My understanding from the articles that I have read thus far is that the stem cells harvested from the ambiotic fluid are identical, even containing Y chromosomes, which means they are built of the same stuff as the fetus, rather than the mother.

In the article, Dr. Clone doesn't dismiss this. He states, "While they are fascinating subjects of study in their own right, they are not a substitute for human embryonic stem cells, which allow scientists to address a host of other interesting questions in early human development."

From my albeit feeble understanding, the reason for embryonic stem cells is that they are not yet tasked to any specific purpose by DNA, and are therefore able to adapt to any need. "addressing a host of other interesting questions in early human development" is not really in the scope of this reasoning is it?

Again, my challenge to you is to demonstrate that current legislation is not directly tied to Cloning interests. Because the nasty secret is that these are the firms that under current legislation receive the greatest benefit. The ethical considerations on this are enough that the issue needs to be dealt with honestly, with sunlight, and without John Edward's hysteria. Would you say that this is the current climate?

The thing is that even if the bill passes the House, then the Senate, it WILL be vetoed by Bush. And this latest discovery will give him plenty of cover for that veto. There will more than likely be a compromise bill introduced on on the Ambiotic Stem cell source that will be more easily separated from cloning interests. How exactly is this a bad thing for anyone?

Framer said...

Sorry, I have more. The fertility clinic embryos about to be destroyed is at best a dishonest argument. The fertility clinics are privately owned, the clinics wishing to expand the lines are privately owned, what exactly does government funding have to do with it? Is there a law that says these fetuses cannot be used for stem cell research? Nope, not in the least. Why do supporters of the bill attempt to make it seem like there is? The Federal money is needed to cover the tremendous expense that CLONING these embryos will take. Again, Sirocco and a lot of other people of all political pursuasions should be uncomfortable with this.

The American drug industry has seemed to do well with Private funding, almost TOO well by some of the rantings I see about Big Pharmacutical. Why not pour federal funding into our current drug manufacturers who have shown almost miraculous results? What makes stem cell research different?

Possibly that any breakthroughs made in Stem Cells will be held in the public domain and not patented and expoited by those who develped them on the back of the American tax payer. I bet that resolution is included somewhere in the legislation, I just haven't been able to find it yet. I will refrain from holding my breath however.

sirocco said...

Framer,

Addressing a couple of your points:

1. No, amniotic stem cells are _not_ identical tDr. Antho embryonic stem cells. They have many of the same traits, but not all. Even the author of the recent stufy involving amniotic stem cells (Dr. Anthony Atala of Wake Forest) doesn't feel amniotic stem cell research should be seen as a "replacement" for embryonic stem cell research.

Having said all that, it's entirely possible amniotic stem cells will turn out to be _more_ useful than embryonic ones. Embryonic stem cells are more pluripotent, but also harder to control. By comparison, "adult" stem cells are easier to control, but have less functionality. It's possible amniotic stem cells hit the sweet spot between the two.

Mind you, all of that could be true and there may still be issues with amniotic cells can't address but embryonic ones can.

2. I can't "prove" companies interested in human cloning aren't primarily interested in doing so for stem cell research purposes (I _think_ that's what you're asking for ... I am a little unclear). It's impossible to "prove" a negative.

Having said that, while I think _some_ companies might be interested in this, I don't think that the primary focus of such research. Nor are the two fields necessarily related. I.e, cloing and stem cell research are two different fields, and you should not use possible mis-application of one to broadly paint the other.

3. I don't doubt Bush _will_ veto the bill. I think Congress should pass it anyway and force him to veto it. You gave no reason at all as to why embryos which will be destroyed anyway should not be used for research purposes.

This is not, as you characterize it, a "dishonest" argument. Right now, Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is limited to a specified number of cell lines. Right now, the number of viable cell lines is, if I recall correctly, 20.

The bill would allow for expanding the availabilty of Federal funding to include new cell lines derived from embryos which will be destroyed anyway. Where is the downside to that? If we don't use them to expand the available cell lines they are still going to be destroyed.

3. In your discussion about American drug companies, what you don't note is the _original_ research that formed the basis for modern drug companies was done by government-funded studies decades ago. Only after viability was established did private firms take over. These days, most of what you see are updated formulations of existing drugs (I.e., taking something and "tweaking" it just enough to make it sufficiently different to be eligible for a new patent).

4. I fully expect any "breakthroughs" in any form of stem cell research to eventually migrate to the provate sphere. As I have (at least indirectly) referred to, the original research tends to be government funded. Once a certain level of viability seems established, private funding comes in and broadens the research base. It would be expected private companies would benefit from such research.

It goes beyond that though -- private firms which receive money from the government for research purposes (such as aeronautical firms, for example) certainly benefit by being able to aply the fruits of that research to other projects they may be pursuing.

Bruce P. Murchison said...

The very fact that one life is destroyed with the hope that someday another might be saved is disturbing. Above, Sirocco said... "I can't see why, if the embryos are about to be destroyed anyway, they shouldn't be allowed for research purposes ... but I would love to see what others think." I repeat, that a life needs to be sacrificed bothers me. Do you honestly have no problem knowing that a cure or body part you receive was created only by destroying another persons life? It pains me to think that these embryos are being discarded. Nevertheless, allowing them to be "researched" only offers another excuse to destroy more. A soldier who goes off to war volunteers their life. It is a concious decision. The child (or for those who don't believe it is one, the "potential" child)doesn't have that choice. If other stem-cell research (cord blood, amniotic fluid, etc.) shows promise, why not pursue it? I certainly don't want tax dollars going to destroy life. I wish no dollars would, but that is a dream.

sirocco said...

Bruce,

While I understand your position, I don't agree with it. Frankly, I don't consider a minimal collection of cells to be equivalent to a person. Aparently you do, which is fine ... and also irrelevant to the question.

The point is, regardless of your view or mine, the fertility clinics are going to destroy those embryos anyway. This may cause little or no angst for me, and a great deal of angst for you, but either way they are going to be destroyed.

I understand you would prefer they not be destroyed at all ... however, fertility clinics regularly destroy unwanted embryos. Until some other alternative is universally available, they will continue to do so.

Given that, and even given your beliefs on the matter, wouldn't you rather see some possible good achieved from their destruction.

Framer said...

Sirocco,

Sorry, I have not had time to get back to this like I wanted to.

1. I did see Atala's letter. Of course he had to publish that somewhere, or risk becoming a scientific pariah. I didn't notice anywhere in the letter where he claimed his stem cells to be inferior or of less promise. I would argue that just the opposite he released his findings when he did on purpose, to maximize his return on results. After the Bush veto, he will be sitting quite pretty for funding.

2. I strongly disagree. If taxpayer money is going to be spent. I want strict oversight, I want to know where the money is going and for what. I want guidelines that guarantee that these cells will not be used for cloning, I also want guarantees that at least a portion of the findings would be open-sourced, and available for others to use. None of that is covered, or approached in the bill that was offered and voted on. It has little to no oversight and appears as if it could have been written on the back of a napkin, for all of it's generality. Look at it and tell me it is not a blank check.

Government oversight and regulation is the price for taxpayer funding. You don't like it, secure your own funding outside of government purview. Bruce's rights on helping determine how taxpayer funds equals yours and Michael J. Fox's, and even probably surpass it as his group is not the ones with their hands out.

3. I am going to require that you back this up. I do not believe that it is accurate to say that all medicine is just a minute variation of what was discovered decades ago. Obviously this may be the case in specific instances, but is not generally the rule. There is also plenty of private funding sources in biomedical that did not exist decades ago. Of course they are not going to invest if there is the possibility of Government money swamping their staked interest. They would be perfectly happy to wait until some company gets a taxpayer funded patent, and then invest.

4. Nope and Nope. There is no altruism required in the bill, nor will it be granted. Any breakthrough will be patented and tied up as fast as they are developed. I sense you wish to liken this to technology developed by NASA, so let's go there. NASA is a government agency, and they own their own patents. They will also license their patent to you in a fair manner should you wish to use it commercially. Under the stem cell bill offered, the government own no patents and holds no power to enforce that their investment is leveraged in a fair matter.

In conclusion, even if you remove the pro-life considerations that Bruce and I share, it is still a bad and sloppy bill, pure and simple. Support for the bill has been built on exaggerations, half-truths, and outright lies (see original John Edwards link). It is a blank check to certain industries that will have little to no oversight. You cannot simply say that if the government invests 3 billion in tax revenue, Alzheimers will be cured, as what the current thrust is. You don't know, the scientists don't know, and it is not under constitutional purview for the government to spend ALL of the treasure to find out.

sirocco said...

Framer,

1. Dr. Atala's letter does not say that. However, other statements, both by Dr. Atala and other researchers, have noted the big advantage of amnio cells over embryonic ones (other than the manner in which they are gathered) is that they are less volatile. This comes at the expense of being less pluripotent.

By definition, this means, at least potentially, there may be things which are achieveable using embryonic cells which won't be achieveable with amnio cells.

2. Any new lines cultured and funded for research by the Federal government would be subject to the same oversight in place for those lines which are already allowed to be funded. That's why there are such provisions in the bill, they already exist.

3. Certainly there are sources of private research in the pharma industry, and certainly some of that research is original. Hoever, it's well known in the field most drugs developed these days are varients of existing ones.

There are a number of studies on the matter, and if you want to poke around some you can find them. Here is a Washington Post article from last month which discusses the matter. The article also lists a number of possible good reasons for the decline in truly new drugs.

4. I am not sure how your point differs from mine -- I said I expected any "breakthroughs" to end up in the private sphere. I actually agree this is a weakness, and would prefer to see something along the NASA model -- if the government finances the research, the government patents and licenses the results, as you describe.

However, despite this problem, I would still favor this bill over the alternative of not extending the research lines.

sirocco said...

As a follow up ... despite the hyperbole, no one is asking for the proverbial "blank check". I don't believe the bill in question even asks for more funding. Rather, it asks for the funding which _is_ made available be extended to cover researh using additional cell lines.

Of course, I would favor increased funding for the research. If we use the logic you propose, we would never fund _anything_ ... after all, you can _never_ truly know in advance what your research might or might not turn up. That's why the call it "research".

As for the level of oversight I would conjecture (pure speculation on my part) that, given the current administration's feelings on the matter, that the level of oversight currently applied to what research in the field is federally funded is actually quite high.