Science Without Limits

Ken Connor

3/15/2009 12:01:00 AM - Ken Connor
On Monday President Obama issued an executive order, removing the restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) instituted by former-President Bush.  ESCR has provoked great controversy because it necessarily involves the destruction of nascent human life.  Two alternative methods of stem cell research have seen great success and are free from ethical controversy, but Obama chose to ignore both ethics and pragmatism in his misguided commitment to support embryonic stem cell research with taxpayer money.

The controversy surrounding embryonic stem cell research has persisted for years.  Ethical concerns over the destruction of embryos were so great that, in 1996, Congress passed the Dickey-Wicker amendment, preventing federal funds from being used in research that involved the production or destruction of human embryos.  Former-President Bush later opened the door for the federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines which had already been derived from the privately-funded destruction of embryos prior to 2001.  On Monday, Obama removed that date restriction, opening up the floodgates for billions of taxpayer dollars to be spent on any embryonic stem cell lines produced since 2001 and providing economic incentives for the destruction of more embryos.

President Obama paid no heed to a clear alternative to embryonic stem cell research which has arisen in the past two years.  Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are adult cells (often derived from skin or hair) which are "induced" by scientists to regress to a state akin to embryonic stem cells.  This approach has seen particularly great success in the past year, leading Rudolf Jaenisch, an expert in transgenic science, to explain that "biologically there's no difference" between iPSCs and Embryonic Stem Cells.  In fact, iPSCs provide a work-around for the troublesome compatibility issues surrounding embryonic stem cells since they are derived from a patient's own cells.

This new approach is so promising that some of the most prominent researchers in the field have abandoned embryonic stem cell research to focus on iPSCs.  Sir Ian Wilmut, the scientist who produced Dolly the Sheep, announced in 2007 that he was abandoning his previous research to focus on iPSCs.  James Thompson, the University of Wisconsin scientist who developed the first embryonic stem cells, has shifted the focus of two of his companies to iPSCs.  If two of the biggest names in stem cell research chose to abandon embryonic stem cells for iPSCs, you would think everyone would take note.  Instead, Democrats and "the scientific community" continue to insist that embryonic stem cells are crucial to a healthy future.

Despite the scientific community's many promises of stem cell based cures, embryonic stem cell research has yet to provide one widely-available treatment after many years of research.  In fact, the one well-known case of embryonic stem cell "therapy" involves a young boy in Israel who was injected with embryonic stem cells in an attempt to heal him from a fatal neuromuscular disease.  Within four years, the doctors discovered tumors in his brain and spinal cord produced by the stem cells he had received.  Despite this ghoulish result, the Food and Drug Administration recently approved the first limited clinical testing of an ESCR-based treatment in the United States.

If the President was truly concerned about effective cures and therapy, he would send massive funding towards another promising technology: adult stem cell research.  Unlike iPSCs, adult stem cells are not returned to an "embryonic" state—rather, they are taken directly from a patient or donor (often from their bone marrow or umbilical cord blood) and injected into the diseased part of their body.  This form of therapy has yielded huge success in recent years. 

Among a long list of achievements, adult stem cell therapy has helped a young boy recover greatly from a fatal genetic skin disease, given a man with Parkinson's an extra five years to go on "photo-safaris" when he had expected to be in a wheelchair, replaced a woman's windpipe after she had lost the ability to breathe due to tuberculosis, reduced the effects of alcohol-caused cirrhosis of the liver in several patients, grown new blood vessels in two kidney dialysis patients, grown bone transplants to replace the upper jaw of a 65-year-old patient, helped to integrate replacement breast tissue into women who had had lumpectomies, restored sight to six people who had been blinded by chemicals or genetic diseases, and given a young girl born blind the ability to see her parents for the first time.  These are but a few of the many therapeutic successes of adult stem cell technology.

With all of these adult stem cell achievements and the controversy-free potential of iPSCs, you would think that the President would be even more gung ho about these treatments than he is about embryonic stem cell research.  But instead, when Obama nullified former-President Bush's restrictions on embryonic stem cell research funding, he also eliminated Bush's funding for these "alternative" forms of stem cell research.  In other words, Obama paved the way for massive federal funding of an unsuccessful and ethically-flawed avenue of research and stripped away funding for successful, controversy-free avenues.  So much for Obama's claim that he is removing politics from science!

What possible reason could underlie such absurd decisions?  Dr. Irving Weissman, Director of The Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, provides us with a hint.  In a recent interview with NPR, he said, "It's not just stem cell research that's the issue here.  It's the idea that you can impose a religious or a political or a moral ideology on the pursuit of what nature has." (NPR Hourly Newscast Podcast for March 9th)  Dr. Weissman's comments point to the dark underbelly of the scientific community's overwhelming support of embryonic stem cell research. 

Much of the scientific community today believe that there should be no restrictions of any kind placed on their "pursuit of science"—a pursuit conveniently defined by them.  Religion, morality, law, pragmatism—nothing should constrain their right to do as they see fit.  Unfortunately, too many people today are blinded by this rhetoric of "unbridled science."  They fail to recognize that science needs and has always needed moral and political constraints.  Consider the awful Dr. Mengele experiments on twins in Nazi Germany, the creation of two-headed dogs through grafting by a Soviet Union surgeon, the vivisections, amputations, and infections administered by the Japanese "Unit 731," or the Tuskegee study on syphilis in African-American men that prevented them from being treated for the disease.  Without moral, religious, or political limits, there would be no grounds to prevent such atrocities.

Society inevitably sets political and moral parameters for scientific research.  This can take on many forms, including placing restrictions on specific forms of research or funding others.  President Obama embarked down an unethical, unwise, and impractical road Monday.  Let us hope that Congress has more sense when funding requests land on their desks.