If someone told you that apple juice was better than orange juice, you’d probably take that as a personal opinion. But if they insisted it was an absolute empirical fact beyond debate, and you found out they owned an apple orchard or worshiped Johnny Appleseed, well, that might explain it, eh? So it is with adult stem cells vs embryonic. The researchers trying to restrict embryonic stem cell research, including those who brought suit and won a temporary injunction against it, happen to be adult stem cell researchers who are also hard-line social conservatives.
In testimony last Thursday before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, leading scientists and advocates George Daly and Sean Morrison, debunked a number of the false arguments used by opponents. Those ridiculous claims and others fall into several groups:
1. Embryonic stem cell research destroys ‘children’. Utter nonsense. The blastocysts used to make stem cell lines come from discarded material from IVF clinics headed for two places: an incinerator or a petri dish. The Stem Cell Advancement Act (.pdf) introduced last week again spelled that out: human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) could be used only if they are excess IVF blastocysts and only with donor consent. If anything, diverting a few to research ‘saves’ them.
2. Adult stem cells already work and can’t ‘hurt anyone’. Highly debatable and vague. The reference is usually to bone marrow transplant. But the first clinical trial for a marrow transplant was in 1955 and every patient in that study died. It took over a decade before the technique was refined. Today it saves thousands of lives every year.
3. Nothing has come from hESCR. Specious at best. Clinical trials are underway on spinal cord injuries using hESC and the future potential for regenerative medicine is unlimited. New eyes, new organs, new spinal and nerve tissue; hESCR could even one day extend human lifespans by decades. And imagine if the bone marrow studies above were banned, or if Jonas Salk had given up early on polio, because ‘nothing’ had come of them yet. That’s a prescription guaranteed to cost lives and stifle progress.
4. Researchers don’t need hESC. False, by sworn testimony and documented fact. Not to mention common sense: if the goal is to reprogram adult stem cells to mimic hESCs, researchers must understand precisely how hESC do what they do. Obviously, the best way to do that is to study them.
Once upon a time a few people argued against surgery, or learning anatomy, claiming it was blasphemy to cut into the divine human body. In the 1800s some people worried anesthesia, especially during childbirth, was against the will of God. Thankfully, those concerns were dealt with and we all enjoy the fruits of that work. But a minority of vocal opponents are still fighting progress tooth and nail using similar tactics. And trust me: even if a paralyzed photogenic kid one day gets up and walks out of a wheelchair, hESC opponents will simply gin up a new batch of lies to account for it.
Call or email your Senator, and tell them to support the Stem Cell Advancement Act. Tell them that hESC are a political winner: poll after poll shows broad public support.
And join the science action list here for updates