Put Scientific Genius To Work Finding Another Way

Posted: Jun 06, 2001 12:00 AM
Is human life sacred? Depends on whose, natch. Welcome to the brave new world of biotechnology, a vast increase in human creativity and power, that like all power can be used for good or for ill. Privately funded firms are right now busily investigating ways you could, say, create a new developing human person you don't know, maybe even clone someone, solely for the purpose of killing him to harvest his stem cells, to cure the disease of someone you do know and love.

Someone like, say, Christopher Reeve?

The disabled actor recently joined with seven scientists to sue the Bush administration for causing "irreparable harm" for refusing to rubber stamp President Clinton's last-minute creative word search around the law banning federal funding for research on human embryos. The National Institutes of Health were all set to hand out the first set of grants when the phone call came from Health and Human Services, saying Bush wanted to review the newly eased regulations, saving us for the moment from a new class of taxpayer-financed itsy-bitsy humans free to be experimented on and consumed.

The stakes are high because so-called stem cells -- human cells not yet differentiated into specific organs -- are among the most promising sources of new treatments for disorders from Parkinson's to diabetes. As a diabetic, I should be pleased, but as a mother I'm appalled. Mothers, of course, are people in the human creation business, first physically and then in other ways. Let's just say I don't like the competition.

But the juggernaut of progress is not easy to stop, especially given the mounting brigade of public voices trying to convince Congress and the rest of us that to find the new fountain of eternal youth, or at least health, we have no choice but to eat our own young.

Maybe, maybe not. In the latest issue of the new American Spectator (look for the half-naked supermodel on the cover), Scott Gottlieb, a physician, adviser to the British Medical Journal and author of a new biotech newsletter about to be launched by Gilder Publishing, points out that venture capital markets are telling a very different story: Venture capitalists, he says, are generally better than government bureaucrats (even ones with Ph.D.s) or (gasp) journalists at predicting what technology is about to bear fruit. And venture capitalist money is betting heavily that stem cells from adults, not embryos, are going to be the cure for what ails us.

Of the 15 biotech firms primarily developing treatments from stem cells, just two work with embryonic stem cells. "When two similar technologies exist," notes Dr. Gottlieb, "this kind of uneven investment flow is usually a proxy for scientific promise and imminent commercial potential."

"Adult stem cells are much closer to therapeutic applications. Embryonic cells still have a variety of obstacles that need to be overcome," agreed Kevin FitzGerald, S.J., Ph.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Loyola University Medical Center. Embryonic stem cells, for example, have a disconcerting tendency to rapidly change into all kinds of different cells, not necessarily on command. Embryonic stem cells injected into certain mice create particularly unattractive tumors consisting of bits of teeth, skin and gut. Adult stem cells, by contrast, are more civilized, evolving (like a particularly well-trained Pokemon) only in response to specific cues. Then there's the problem of supply: "It takes six dead fetuses to provide enough material to treat one Parkinson's patient," notes Dr. Gottlieb, "making it difficult to see how there would be enough fetal tissue" to treat the 1 million people with Parkinson's disease "anytime soon."

A lot of people in the debate over taxpayer-funded human experimentation are trying to sell you on the idea: your morals or your life. Don't believe it. If faith means anything it means this: The same human ingenuity that could exploit defenseless unborn babies (call them embryos if it makes you feel better) could also be used to find another way.

(Maggie Gallagher is a part-time consulting editor at The American Spectator.)