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Darn Cells. Dividing Yet Again!

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2007

Coincidence or conspiracy? You be the judge.

Thursday, June 7. After months of intense lobbying by scientists and patient advocacy groups, the House is ready to vote on legislation that would loosen President Bush's restrictions on the use of human embryos in stem cell research. But that very morning, the lead story in every major newspaper is about research just published in a British journal that shows stem cells can be made from ordinary skin cells.

The work was in mice, but the take-home message that suffuses Capitol Hill is that there is no need to experiment on embryos after all.

If that doesn't sound suspicious, consider this:

Monday, Jan. 8. After months of intense lobbying by scientists and patient advocacy groups, Congress is ready to vote on legislation that would loosen Bush's restrictions on stem cell research. But that very morning, newspapers are touting new research just published in a British journal suggesting that stem cells can be made from easily obtained placenta cells. No need for embryos after all!

Is there a plot afoot?

Lots of lobbyists, members of Congress and even a few scientists are starting to think so.

"It is ironic that every time we vote on this legislation, all of a sudden there is a major scientific discovery that basically says, 'You don't have to do stem cell research,' " Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) sputtered on the House floor on Thursday. "I find it very interesting that every time we bring this bill up there is a new scientific breakthrough," echoed Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), lead sponsor of the embryo access bill. Her emphasis on the word "interesting" clearly implies something more than mere interest.

"Convenient timing for those who oppose embryonic stem cell research, isn't it?" added University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan in an online column. (The bill passed easily, but not with a margin large enough to override Bush's promised veto.)

Even some scientists, those exemplars of rationality, couldn't help but wonder if somebody, somewhere, was -- if not out to get them -- at least taking some pleasure in irritating them.

"I don't think this is the most sensitive timing for Nature to release these papers," said Harvard stem cell scientist Kevin Eggan, the lead author of one of the articles that appeared in the London-based journal on Thursday.

Twice in six months. What are the odds?

Actually, they are pretty good, experts said. After all, stem cell research is hot, and a lot of it is focused on finding ways to obtain the therapeutically promising cells without the scientific and ethical complications of dealing with human embryos.

"Papers are coming out about embryonic stem cells so regularly that the odds are going to be high that some will come out when Congress is voting on them," said David Ropeik, an expert in risk assessment at Harvard Extension School.

"It seems like a case of confirmation bias," agreed John Allen Paulos, an expert in probabilities at Temple University. "That's the tendency, once you've made a tentative judgment, to look for factors that seem to confirm your judgment and to ignore facts that say otherwise" -- such as all those other papers that were published when Congress was voting on other stuff.

Then there is the question of motive. The Brits are competing against Americans in the stem cell field and are legally allowed to conduct studies on embryos. Might they be aiming to dominate the field by helping the conservative and religious forces that have so far restricted U.S. scientists' access to embryos?

Or might the journals be trying, as one stem cell expert opined on the condition of anonymity, to leverage their visibility by publishing stem cell articles just as Congress is voting on the topic?

"Nature has no hidden agenda in publishing these papers," said the journal's senior press officer, Ruth Francis, in an e-mail. The real goal was to get the papers out before a big stem cell conference in Australia next week, she said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it isn't only proponents of stem cell research who over-connect the dots.

"I will confess, I said to one of the congressional staffers of my general persuasion: 'Doesn't God have a sense of humor?' " said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes embryo research and fought against the bill.

"There is somebody looking out for us! God is telling us He is there!" Doerflinger said, adding that he was half joking and recognizes that it is a "little presumptuous" to think that God is personally involved in the stem cell debate.

To Ropeik, the Harvard risk expert, the fact that people are imputing anything more than sheer coincidence is "just more proof that inside the Beltway the thinking is so myopic. They see the whole world through their own lens, and are blinded" to common sense.

But the urge is difficult to resist.

Consider the names of the lead scientists on one of the research papers released Thursday -- a paper suggesting that stem cell scientists might no longer need to rely on human eggs for their studies -- Kevin Eggan and Dieter Egli.

Eggs. Eggan. Egli.

C'mon. What are the odds?

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