Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Green and stem cells

The left side of the Cheddarsphere thinks its all that in criticizing Mark Green's proposal to spend $25 million dollars on research which seeks to create pluripotent stem cells without destroying the embryo from whence they came. Xoff gathers 'em up. The nature of the criticism seems to be that he wants to devote money to an "unproven" technology rather than the "proven" embryo-destructive research.

Of course when it comes to the ultimate objective, i.e/, curing people, both technologies are unproven. Embryo-destructive research has yet to help its first person, but its proponents think that it might. We haven't yet learned how to create embryonic stem-cell lines from a biopsied stem cell (which we do know can be taken without destroying the embryo), but some researchers think we might and, in fact, some recent work (although it did not itself accomplish - or even attempt - the task)suggests that it might work. Other lines of research seek to "tease" adult stem cells into pluripotency.

Green suggests addressing an ethical dilemna and, all of a sudden, the "pro-science" forces want to shutter the lab. Some of this is undoubtedly simple partisanship, but some may well be a recognition that we need to discard the notion that human life has intrinsic value if we are to move into a utilitarian future. I can countenance political hacksmanship. But the latter really bothers me.


Anonymous said...

May we count on you, then, to demand that your legislators shut down all of the IVF clinics in the state? After all, most of the little people who are conceived in these labs end up in the medical waste incinerator and are not implanted.

One of these days you folks are going to have to develop some cojones or at least be consistent.

I am NOT holding my breath, however, as consistency in the right to life movement is about as likely to occur as the second coming of Christ.

Amy said...

How much more consistent do we have to be when we say - and science has proven - that embryonic stem cells (ESC) have done nothing, zippo, zilch, nada to treat or cure illnesses?

How much more consistent do we have to be when we add that adult stem cells (ASC) have yielded the medical results those on the left are going for?

It is the left that is inconsistent, as it claims to want cures for diseases but then only champions the form of stem cell treatment (ESC) that is totally and completely ineffective.

Anonymous said...

Amy, Amy, Amy! Research on adult stem cells has been going on for 30+ years. Research on embryonic stem cells started in 2001. Open your closed and narrow little mind!

Original Story URL:

Human embryonic stem cells: The view from the lab bench


On my lab bench is a dish containing what are perhaps the world's most famous cells.

Derived eight years ago by Wisconsin developmental biologist James Thomson, in whose lab I work, the human embryonic stem cells in front of me are happy, dividing with ease in their cocktail of nutrients and growth factors.

Cared for properly, these cells will divide in culture endlessly. They are the Energizer Bunnies of cells. They never stop dividing.

Coaxed with different growth factors, the cells can migrate down any of scores of developmental pathways to become nerve cells, heart cells, bone, blood - any of the 220 types of cells or tissues in the human body.

Their abilities to replicate endlessly and become any type of human cell are the two features that make human embryonic stem cells unique. No other cells have these qualities.

These cells are special in another way: They are among the handful of human embryonic stem cell lines approved for use in labs that receive funding from the U.S. government.

That is important because it has permitted us to start to peel away some of the mystery of these cells and how they work. If they are to achieve the promise we believe they hold, we'll need to know their secrets.

In the few years that we have had access to them, we've learned some things about how the cells work, and how they can be directed to become specific cell types such as heart, blood and neural cells and, most importantly, we've learned about their basic properties.

The astonishing amount of public attention focused on these cells has created a perception that cures for horrible diseases are at hand. Unfortunately, the path from discovery to the clinic is much longer and bumpier than is conveyed in breathless news accounts.

One reason for that is because nature does not give up her secrets easily. By design, science is a careful, methodical and incremental process. It takes time.

It is also expensive, and the fact that funding for our research is constrained by policy is, sadly, another reason the field is not moving as quickly as it could.

The federal government is the largest funding agency for biomedical research in the world, and the United States boasts the largest, most sophisticated and best funded research enterprise anywhere.

But current policy is turning the best scientists away from our field. Fascinating science and biomedical potential notwithstanding, why would young people enter a field where funding opportunities and the ability to work with the cells that underpin it are so constrained?

Science is a tough, competitive business, and smart people know a stacked deck when they see one.

The policy that limits our work is based on the fact that isolating embryonic stem cells requires the destruction of a human embryo.

One recent study suggests there may be ways to obtain stem cells without destroying the embryo, and that's exciting news. But that research is in its earliest stages, has yet to be replicated and may not, in fact, be the solution to our ethical dilemma.

All of the embryos used in our field are "spares," donated by the patients who created them for treating infertility. It has been reported that there are some 400,000 such embryos in cryogenic preservation in the United States.

Even if there is a way to extract stem cells without harming an embryo, what is the fate of that embryo? Will it be refrozen? To what end?

The sad fact is that the vast majority of those embryos will be destroyed anyway. Therein resides the great moral inconsistency and flaw of current policy.

The reality of IVF treatment is that it often results in the creation of more embryos than a couple is interested in using themselves.

There are several options available for the disposition of these "spare" embryos: a couple can choose to continue to freeze them indefinitely (an expensive proposition), donate them for use by another couple, discard them or donate them for scientific research.

While President Bush has stated that these embryos should be donated to other couples, the reality is couples very rarely choose that option. Most IVF patients are uncomfortable giving spare embryos to other couples, and the government is not currently in a position to compel them to do so.

Unfortunately, the favored alternate disposition is the trash can. A busy IVF clinic, I would wager, disposes of more embryos in a year than have been used to date in all of stem cell science.

On moral grounds, is that the preferred outcome? Is throwing the entire embryo into the trash a better option than using a part of it for research to improve human health?

The president and the interest groups that support his policy have further clouded the debate by suggesting that there are more ethical alternatives.

Adult stem cells, they say, are just as good and lack the ethical baggage that accompanies embryonic stem cells. It is true that there is no moral dilemma in obtaining stem cells from adult tissues, and that research with adult stem cells is very promising. But are they the same? Do adult stem cells hold the same potential?

It is possible that at some point in the future a clever scientist will figure out a way to make adult stem cells perform the same way embryonic stem cells do.

But adult stem cells have been available to science for 30 years, and while they have demonstrated their potential, an honest scientist would never equate the two.

There are three catches to using adult stem cells in medical research:

• They cannot be found in all tissues. Scientists have yet to find stem cells in the adult heart and the brain, for example.

• The plasticity of adult stem cells is limited. Recent studies suggesting that adult stem cells possessed the capacity to become other types of cells received considerable attention. The follow-up studies that failed to replicate those results were back-page news.

• Adult stem cells are hard to grow, and yield only small amounts.

Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, can become any cell or tissue. Moreover, you can grow embryonic stem cells by the truckload. The cell lines derived here eight years ago are chugging away and are in use in some 300 labs worldwide.

The adult stem cell argument also neglects to mention one critical potential of embryonic stem cells: Before we had access to them, almost nothing was known about the earliest stages of human development. It is at that stage of life when the preconditions for disease are set.

If we are able to hone our understanding of early human development, it may one day be possible to prevent the onset of many of the diseases we might one day treat with stem cells grown in the lab.

In a hundred years, when the history of the field is written, the contributions of embryonic stem cells to understanding, and perhaps preventing, cell-based diseases will likely be the lasting legacy of the cells on my lab bench.

Tenneille Ludwig is a stem cell scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an affiliate of the WiCell Research Institute.

From the Sept. 3, 2006 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Rick Esenberg said...


I have heard the IVF argument and it proves more than you want it to. It essentially says that having let the camel poke its nose under the tent, we must now invite her inside. Your argument is exhibit A in the case for line drawing.

There are other countries whose rules for IVF clinics are quite different. There is nothing about IVF which requires the creation of excess embryos and subsequent "reduction" of pregnancies

Anonymous said...

"Your argument is exhibit A in the case for line drawing."

Not exactly, Rick. If you talk to an embryonic stem cell scientist, you will learn that a single IVF clinic discards more fertilized eggs in a single year than all of the embryonic stem cell scientists in the world have used to create stem cell lines to date.

IVF is the camel inside the tent, and embryonic stem cell research is the nose poking outside the tent, to use your analogy.

Again, the hypocrisy of the right-to-life crowd on this issue is stunning.

Amy said...

Open your closed and narrow little mind!

"An open mind is really a mark of foolishness, like an open mouth. Mouths and minds were made to shut; they were made to open only in order to shut." (GK Chesterton)

I don't understand how I'm being a hypocrite when my position has been the same from the get-go. Creating life to destroy it - whether by ESCR or IVF - is immoral and wrong.

The mentality that "left-over" embryos from IVF procedures are OK to use for ESCR is a slippery-slope.

You do not understand that right-to-life people believe life begins from CONCEPTION, and therefore such experimental use of HUMAN BEGINS is dangerous and tragic.

"The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid." (GK Chesterton)

My mind is shut on something solid. That something is pursuing a medical technology that's been working for over 30 years - or perhaps exploring other options, like stem cells from cord blood - and finding ways to cure diseases without creating and destroying life.

I'm sorry, but unless the pro-ESCR crowd can come up with something solid, all this rabid support for ESCR seems little more than a fanatical attempt to destroy life rather than find decent cures for diseases.

Anonymous said...

"I'm sorry, but unless the pro-ESCR crowd can come up with something solid, all this rabid support for ESCR seems little more than a fanatical attempt to destroy life rather than find decent cures for diseases."

Your ignorance is astounding. The earth is flat -- there is no need to explore beyond our shores.

It's obvious you have never spoken with an ESCR scientist. Many of them are strongly anti-abortion. They aren't "creating life in order to destroy it" -- they are using fertilized eggs which are bound for destruction whether any productive use is made of them or not.

Your hypocrisy is that you do not rage against the IFV clinics, many of which create and destroy more fertilized eggs in a year than all embryonic stem cell labs have used to date.

And you tell bald lies, such as calling ESCR the "form of stem cell treatment ... that is totally and completely ineffective".

Again, open your narrow little closed mind.