Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Stem Cells Vetoed

No surprises today. George Bush put on his 'sanctity of life' mask as he vetoed the stem cell bill presented to him two weeks ago. Ellen Goodman from the Boston Globe wrote a pretty good editorial of the stem cell issue (syndicated here in my parents' home-town paper). Highlights from that piece include quotes that I hope hit home with the lay reader:
The reason researchers use embryos is not because they want to run a recycling program for in vitro fertilization clinics. Nor because they have a passion for wedge issues. It's because the embryo can do what scientists can't do yet.
In short, we'll need to use human embryos even to help us eventually stop using human embryos.
This is basically true. As I have advocated before, we need to support both embryonic and adult stem cell research, and not just with lip service. The counter-offer the administration is proposing is focuses on
recent scientific advances that have the potential to sidestep ethical controversies involving embryonic stem cell work. The full text of the executive order is here.

Let me point out to you the important parts of this proclamation and also some of its nonsense:
Section 1 (a): The Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary) shall conduct and support research on the isolation, derivation, production, and testing of stem cells that are capable of producing all or almost all of the cell types of the developing body and may result in improved understanding of or treatments for diseases and other adverse health conditions, but are derived without creating a human embryo for research purposes or destroying, discarding, or subjecting to harm a human embryo or fetus.
  • The leading techniques for doing this involve nuclear reprogramming or somatic cell nuclear transfer. You know what the lay press calls these techniques? Cloning! This is a good example of double-speak.
  • "embryo or fetus" It sure is convenient that Bush's science consultants threw in an emotional term like fetus, even though it has no relevancy to the science.
Section 1 (b) iv: Within 90 days of this order, the Secretary renames the "Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry" the"Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Registry."
  • Hmmm... I am not sure if I like this or not. I've noted before that scientist failed to frame this properly by using the word embryonic, so I kindof like the idea of changing the terminology.
  • It's the next point that pulls me in the other direction.
Section 1 (b) v: The Secretary must add to the registry new human pluripotent stem cell lines that clearly meet the standard set forth in subsection (a) of this section.
  • Whoa!!! Let's just water down an already dilute stock of limited stem cell lines with some less potent, uncharacterized lines.
  • The last time I checked, there aren't any human non embryonic pluripotent stem cell lines. Let me know in 5 years if there are any yet.
Section 1 (c) Not later than December 31 of each year, the Secretary shall report to the President on the activities carried out under this order during the past fiscal year, including a description of the research carried out or supported by the Department of Health and Human Services, including the National Institutes of Health, and other developments in the science of pluripotent stem cells not derived from human embryos.
  • Over Christmas Cookies, Bush: "Hey Mikey, got any new-fangled stem cells that don't come from cute little babies?"
  • Michael Leavitt: "No sir, but we're timing another mouse stem cell study to be released around the time those pesky congressmen give you another bill to veto."
Section 2 (b): It is critical to establish moral and ethical boundaries to allow the Nation to move forward vigorously with medical research, while also maintaining the highest ethical standards and respecting human life and human dignity.
  • Exercise for the reader: try changing "medical research" to "international diplomacy."
Finally a note of practicality: the NYTimes points out that:
this effort appears largely symbolic — there is no money attached — and scientists were instantly skeptical.
Including the same scientists who published the recent skin stem cell work.

It is true that the August 9, 2001 Bush stem cell policy has caused an explosion of creative techniques to acquire non-embryonic pluripotent stem cells. But many commentators believe this work would have occurred anyway because of the desirability of personalized stem cells that are not rejected. What is too bad is that much of the US will be handicapped when these restrictions are lifted because, as Ellen Goodman writes, "the embryo can do what scientists can't do yet." The best way we will learn about what the embryo (and these potential new sources of pluripotent cells) can do is by, well, studying human embryonic stem cells.


Anonymous said...

It is beyond frustrating that politics has intruded into science in such a discovery-deadening way. I have little hope for even marginally funded science until we have a change in the administration in DC. And, then it will take another 4 - 5 years to root out the idiots that have replaced skilled civil servants. I despair that many people do not understand that Pandora's Box is already open, the horse is already out of the barn, and we'd have been powerless to stop it even if we had wanted to... it's beyond too late to slam the lid closed the minute a scientist begins to wonder. Human inquiry is a force of nature. There really is not much point in trying to smother it. It is the best part of us.

thomas said...

I guess all we are left with is hope that inquiry and creativity will win out over the evils of politicized science!