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    Tuesday, May 24, 2005

    More Stem Cells

    In my last post and comments, I expressed my opinion on the current embryonic stem cell debate. My view stems from my religiously conservative upbringing and a healthy knowledge of genetics, molecular biology, and medicine. Granted, I may not be the world's foremost authority on the subject, but I do feel uniquely qualified to view the debate objectively because my background and education provide insight into both sides of the divide.

    So when I read the Wall Street Journal today, the editorial by Dr. David Shaywitz (you may need to register to read it) seemed particularly applicable.

    It is a great letter. The reason there is a debate is because there is
    remarkably modest congressional legislation, proposed by Republican Michael Castle and Democrat Diana DeGette and scheduled for a vote today, which would permit federal funds to be used on human embryonic stem cell lines derived after Aug. 9, 2001. Presently, only the few lines established prior to this date are eligible for government support, a prohibition that has had a crippling effect on research in this emerging field.
    The argument I've heard often is that
    The human embryo should be held as sacrosanct, and not used for the pursuit of any ends, regardless of how nobly intended.
    Therefore, Shaywitz argues that
    if human embryonic stem cell research is morally, fundamentally, wrong, then it should be wrong, period, regardless of the consequences to medical research. If conservatives believe their own rhetoric, they should vigorously critique embryonic stem cell research on its own grounds, and not rely upon an appeal to utilitarian principles.
    This is because most argue that cord stem cells serve the purpose of embryonic stem cells and embryos are not needed. I elucidated the shortage of cells that the research industry has (and is trying to address with this new legislation), and Dr. Shaywitz explains the logical argument I was thinking but didn't write yesterday:
    First, the science: Opponents of the Castle-DeGette legislation assert that embryonic stem cells are unnecessary because adult stem cells, as well as umbilical cord blood stem cells, will perform at least as well as embryonic stem cells, and have already demonstrated their therapeutic value. This argument appears very popular, and has been articulated by almost every member of Congress who has spoken out against the new stem cell bill.

    To be sure, one of the great successes of modern medicine has been the use of adult blood stem cells to treat patients with leukemia. The trouble is generalizing from this: There are very strong data suggesting that while blood stem cells are good at making new blood cells, they are not able to turn into other types of cells, such as pancreas or brain. The limited data purported to demonstrate the contrary are preliminary, inconclusive, unsubstantiated, or all three. Thus, it seems extremely unlikely that adult blood cells -- or blood cells from the umbilical cord -- will be therapeutically useful as a source of anything else but blood.

    Moreover, while stem cells seem to exist for some cell types in the body -- the blood and the intestines, for example -- many adult tissues, such as the pancreas, may not have stem cells at all. Thus, relying on adult stem cells to generate replacement insulin-producing cells for patients with diabetes is probably an exercise in futility.

    ... In the process, conservatives seem to have left their usual concern for junk science at the laboratory door, citing in their defense preliminary studies and questionable data that they would surely -- and appropriately -- have ridiculed were it not supporting their current point of view. In fact, there is little credible evidence to suggest adult stem cells have the same therapeutic potential as embryonic stem cells. Conservatives often speak of the need to abide by difficult principle; acknowledging the limitations of adult stem cell research would seem like a good place to start.
    Ultimately it comes down to my argument yesterday, and Dr. Shaywiz's today: If you oppose it on moral grounds, than it will always be wrong. Otherwise, scientific logic argues persuasively for it. We must find the balance between the conservative religious morals and the scientific progressivism.

    P.S. Here's a copy of the Castle-DeGette bill.

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