Monday, March 9, 2009

Fetal Stem Cells and Politics

President Obama says he wants to follow science instead of political ideology and so he overturned the banning of federal money being used in research on fetal stem cells. Bah! This is a clear distraction and is not the whole truth. We need to expose it to the light.

If you want to know (in detail) how stem cell policy is intimately tied to politics of the Democrat party, then I highly suggest the article Stem Cells: A Political History by Joseph Bottum and Ryan T. Anderson. It is enlightening.

Basically the scientists and politicians have worked hand-in-hand to ignore science and make the argument irrationally emotional - your grandmother could be cured...IF only the mean old moralists would get out of the way.

They are selling a false hope, a lie, for votes and money. Not to do the right thing. Not out of compassion.

Let me give you a few snips:
...the people who rejected embryonic research—the people who didn’t want cloned embryos created and killed for stem cells—were forced into this kind of flailing response. They were desperate for alternatives to which they could point, as the drumbeat grew louder and louder. Undermining Science was the angry title of one political book, The Republican War on Science the title of another—and, always, what John Kerry denounced as a “ban on stem-cell research” was at the center of the attack.

In point of fact, of course, there never was any such ban. In August 2001, when he announced his administration’s new policy, George Bush became the first president to allow the use of federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research. He limited it to previously established stem-cell lines, but even that was a change from what the Clinton administration had done. Meanwhile, private companies could experiment as they wanted, and state governments could fund them if they chose (as California did, authorizing $3 billion worth of bonds specifically for embryonic stem-cell research not funded by the federal government).

President Bush’s mildly complicated policy, how-ever, didn’t fit the narrative that the media wanted to tell. And the question, of course, is why? What was it about stem cells that so agitated the nation for six years?

Perhaps the recipe looks like this: Take the always-present human hunger for magic—for medicine as a kind of witchcraft, delivering thaumaturgical cures. Add the vague sense, shared by most people, that ever since the discovery of DNA’s double helix in 1953 we have been living in something like a golden age of biology. Include the strong sense, among political liberals, that religious believers must be discredited before they undo the abortion license. Now, wrap the whole thing up in money, the competition for trillions of dollars in research grants and the biotech companies’ stock dividends.

And you have, in the end, a story that begs to be told—a dish ready-made for a political meal. As the elections in those years came and went, we were told of miraculous cures, wondrous therapies, and fabulous healings, just waiting to arrive. Research with embryonic stem cells would lead to “the greatest breakthrough in our or any lifetime,” Ronald Reagan’s son announced at the 2004 Democratic convention. “How’d you like to have your own personal biological repair kit standing by at the hospital? Sound like magic? Welcome to the future of medicine.”

On and on, it went: speaker after speaker denouncing the heartless Republicans who were trying to block the path of medical magic, until, at last, the vice-presidential candidate John Edwards stood up in 2004, pointed down at the paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve, and proclaimed that a vote for the Democrats would mean that people like Reeve “are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.”

Surely this isn’t science. It seems more the call-and-response of a revival meeting. It seems more a simulation of science, delivered in a simulation of evangelical Christian preaching, and all of it warped to a partisan purpose.

Then the authors give us this insight:

Still, before we commiserate too much with America’s stem-cell researchers, so badly taken advantage of, it’s worth remembering that they didn’t just let themselves be used. They rushed to be used. Offered a public platform, they begged to be exploited, and the politicians, newspapers, and television talk shows merely obliged them. In the summer before the 2004 presidential election, Ron McKay, from the National Institutes of Health, admitted that he and his fellow scientists had generally failed to correct the media’s false reports about the promise of stem cells—but that was all right, he told the Washington Post, since ordinary people “need a fairy tale.” They require, he said, “a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.”

Little of what we were told about stem cells in those days was wholly true, and much of it was wholly false. But, then, that’s the nature of politics. As late as January 2007, Pennsylvania’s liberal Republican senator Arlen Specter was declaring, “It is scandalous that eight years have passed since we have known about stem-cell research and the potential to conquer all known maladies, and federal funds have not been available for the research.”

Even at the time, however, the Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka was working with mice to show that fully pluripotent stem cells (cells having the qualities of those produced by destroying embryos) could be created directly from adult cells. Within a year, his study was significantly expanded by research groups. And on November 20, 2007, two independent teams published papers—one in the journal Cell, and the other in the journal Science—about the production of pluripotent human stem cells without using embryos or eggs or cloning. And with a silent thump, the topic suddenly fell off the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.

Until now - when President Obama has opened up federal dollars to do human embryo research. Apparently, they can still ignore the facts. The article ends like this:

The new production technique is possible because the difference between a stem cell and an adult cell is not a matter of genetics but of epigenetics: which genes are expressed, how, and to what degree. Scientists had been searching for a way to remodel the gene expression of adult cells to transform them into stem cells. And the Japanese research team led by Shinya Yamanaka found a group of four genes that does precisely this. As confirmed by American researchers, these genes directly reprogram adult cells to a pluripotent state.

James Thomson explained the result in his Science paper about “induced Pluripotent Stem cells”: “The human iPS cells described here meet the defining criteria we originally proposed for human embryonic stem cells, with the significant exception that the iPS cells are not derived from embryos.” In other words, the new technique produces stem cells with all the benefits of stem cells from embryos produced by cloning—particularly the patient-specific character—but without the production and destruction of human embryos or the use of human eggs.

Since that breakthrough, stem cells have barely made the news. Interesting and exciting work is still going on, but what’s changed is the immediate impact of stem cells—the political salience, in other words. For six years, from 2001 through 2007, embryonic stem cells were a weapon in a political battle. And, as in all political battles, usefulness trumps truth, even for the scientists who willingly made themselves into partisans during the debate.

The history of the stem-cell debate is a study of what happens when politics and science reach out to each other. The politicians were guilty, but the scientists were more guilty, for they allowed—no, they encouraged—politicians to make stem-cell research a tool in the public fights over abortion, public religion, and high finance.

In the small demagogueries of a political season, the science of stem-cell research became susceptible to the easy lie and the useful exaggeration. A little shading of truth, a little twisting of facts—yes, the politics corrupted the science, but the scientists willingly aided the corruption. And with this history in mind, who will believe America’s scientists the next time they tell us something that bears on an election? We have learned something over these years: When science looks like politics, that’s because it is.

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