Behind the Cell Curve

Why Is the President Ignoring a Scientific Gift?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009; Page A15

As he lifted the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research Monday, President Obama proclaimed that scientific decisions now will be made "on facts, not ideology."

This sounds good, but what if there were other non-ideological facts that Obama seems to be ignoring? One fact is that since Obama began running for president, researchers have made some rather amazing strides in alternative stem cell research. Science and ethics finally fell in love, in other words, and Obama seems to have fallen asleep during the kiss. Either that, or he decided that keeping an old political promise was more important than acknowledging new developments. In the process, he missed an opportunity to prove that he is pro-science but also sensitive to the concerns of taxpayers who don't want to pay for research that requires embryo destruction.

Unfortunately, the stem cell debate has been characterized as a conflict between science (as though science is always right) and religious "kooks" (as though religious folk are never right). In choosing sides, it is, indeed, easier to imagine lunch with a researcher who wants to resurrect Christopher Reeve (whom Obama couldn't resist mentioning) and make him walk again, than with the corner protester holding a fetus in a jar.

Moreover, as Obama said, the majority of Americans have reached a consensus that we should pursue this research. Polling confirms as much, but most Americans, including most journalists and politicians, aren't fluent in stem cell research. It's complicated. If people "know" anything, it is that embryonic stem cells can cure diseases and that all stem cells come from fertility clinic embryos that will be discarded anyway. Neither belief is entirely true.

In fact, every single one of the successes in treating patients with stem cells thus far -- for spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis, for example -- have involved adult or umbilical cord blood stem cells, not embryonic stem cells. And though federal dollars still won't directly fund embryo destruction, federally funded researchers can obtain embryos privately created only for experimentation. Thus, taxpayers now are incentivizing a market for embryo creation and destruction.

The insistence on using embryonic stem cells always rested on the argument that they were pluripotent, capable of becoming any kind of cell. That superior claim no longer can be made with the spectacular discovery in 2007 of "induced pluripotent stem cells" (iPSs), which was the laboratory equivalent of the airplane. Very simply, iPS cells can be produced from skin cells by injecting genes that force the cells to revert to their primitive "blank slate" form with all the same pluripotent capabilities of embryonic stem cells.

But "induced pluripotent stem cells" doesn't trip easily off the tongue, nor have any celebrities stepped forward to expound their virtues. (If only Angelina Jolie would purse those pouty lips and say "pluripotent.") Even without such drama, Time magazine named iPS innovation No. 1 on its "Top 10 Scientific Discoveries" of 2007, and the journal Science rated it the No. 1 breakthrough of 2008.

The iPS discovery even prompted Ian Wilmut, who led the team that cloned Dolly the sheep, to abandon his license to attempt human cloning, saying that the researchers "may have achieved what no politician could: an end to the embryonic stem cell debate." And, just several days ago, Dr. Bernadine Healy, director of the National Institutes of Health under the first President Bush, wrote in U.S. News & World Report that these recent developments "reinforced the notion that embryonic stem cells . . . are obsolete."

Many scientists, of course, want to conduct embryonic stem cell research, as they have and always could with private funding. One may agree or disagree with their purposes, but one may also question why taxpayers should have to fund something so ethically charged when alternative methods are available.

Next comes a move to lift the unfortunately named Dickey-Wicker amendment in Congress, which prohibits using tax dollars to create human embryos for research purposes. If the amendment is rescinded, human embryos can be created and destroyed with federal tax dollars.

Good people can disagree on these things, but those who insist that this is "only about abortion" miss the point. The objectification of human life is never a trivial matter. And determining what role government plays in that objectification may be the ethical dilemma of the century.

In this case, science handed Obama a gift -- and he sent it back.

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