22 November 2007

Stem cell wars

Over the last two weeks we've seen two major breakthroughs in the field of stem-cell research. One, which I discussed here, uses a modified egg cell to create new stem cells with DNA taken from a specific patient by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT -- see linked posting for more detail); the other involves "reprogramming" body cells to make them function like stem cells, again with the DNA of the specific patient from which the body cells were taken. The fact that two such important new advances have been made shows the vigor of progress in the field, and the more approaches we have available to work with, the better, since we don't know yet which method will prove most successful at developing actual therapies against human disease.

What has been interesting and alarming, however, is the massive outpouring of commentary about the second breakthrough from outside the world of science -- from the religious, ideological, and political forces which have opposed embryonic stem-cell research all along. The gist of this (for samples see here and here) is that the reprogramming success has supposedly ended the debate over stem-cell research by making it possible to "create stem cells" without harvesting them from actual embryos -- something which the SCNT technique still requires. The argument is then made that research based on obtaining stem cells from embryos -- which the Bush administration has de-funded because it violates religious taboos -- should be abandoned since an alternative process is now available.

Perhaps the most astonishing example is this bile-oozing entry from NRO, which shows the contempt and near-hatred with which science is viewed by more than a few religious conservatives. Not only is "the science establishment" relentlessly castigated for its objections to the obstruction of its work by Bush's crew of fanatics and ignoramuses, but the scientific community is simply assumed to have taken the stands it does for ideological reasons of its own, unconnected to the needs of the actual research, which apparently are just a pretext. To those who see the world entirely through the prism of ideology, everyone else's motivations must be as purely ideological as one's own, and their facts and reasons must be as invented or cherry-picked as one's own. (I've noticed that global-warming denialists seem to make this assumption about climate scientists as well.) As a general rule, anyone who rants about how evil and depraved scientists are, and believes that fundamentalist politicians know better than scientists do what is good for science, is unlikely to have anything worthwhile to say about any scientific subject.

In actuality, the reprogramming technique is unlikely to be as significant or as successful at developing actual therapies as the SCNT technique. SCNT generates actual stem cells in the same way as they are generated in the early stages of embryo development in nature; reprogramming changes body cells into "stem-like cells" by methods entirely dissimilar to anything found in nature. It seems likely (until further research provides data, we won't know) that cells produced by the former technique will have the full range of capabilities that naturally-occuring stem cells do, while those produced by the latter will have some but not all of those capabilities. Against this, of course, is the fact that SCNT requires human egg cells (which can only be obtained from women via an invasive surgical procedure, which limits the supply), while reprogramming does not. It would be absolutely criminal to abandon or slow down work on either technique. Millions of people right now are suffering from cerebral palsy, Parkinson's disease, macular degeneration, multiple sclerosis, and other conditions which have already been cured in lab animals using stem-cell therapies. Every day's delay in developing cures for those conditions in humans represents a vast amount of human misery. All advanced nations should be pouring funding into SCNT, reprogramming, and any other method that shows promise in moving stem-cell technology forward.

But to the religious ideologist, science must be forced to fit into the straitjacket of religious taboo. Inconvenient facts about the harm this does to actual, living people are simply to be brushed aside, like the moons of Jupiter which Galileo's devout contempo-raries insisted they could not see through his telescope.

20 January 2009 can't come soon enough.

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2 Comments:

Blogger John Evo said...

This was great!

To those who see the world entirely through the prism of ideology, everyone else's motivations must be as purely ideological as one's own, and their facts and reasons must be as invented or cherry-picked as one's own. (I've noticed that global-warming denialists seem to make this assumption about climate scientists as well.) As a general rule, anyone who rants about how evil and depraved scientists are, and believes that fundamentalist politicians know better than scientists do what is good for science, is unlikely to have anything worthwhile to say about any scientific subject.

But we have to protect those 150 cell blastocysts - God told us to!

23 November, 2007 17:15  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Thanks!

But we have to protect those 150 cell blastocysts - God told us to!

Cue Monty Python music:

Every sperm is sacred
Every sperm is great
If a sperm is wasted
God gets quite irate!

24 November, 2007 03:06  

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