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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Shell Game on Stem Cells

One of the campaign pledges Barak Obama ran on was to reverse the Bush administration's ban of federal funding for new lines of embryonic stem cell research. Given Obama's now in office, some news publications are spinning the stem cell debate pretty strongly. Time magazine's cover story on stem cell research trumpets "How the Coming Revolution in Stem Cells Could Save your Life" while the article is filled with ridiculous statements like "during the dark days of the Bush administration's stem cell restrictions", "federally backed scientists like Melton were forced to adopt a byzantine system of labeling and cataloging their cell cultures and equipment". Even the article's subheading contains more commentary than fact when it states "After eight years of political ostracism, stem-cell scientists like Harvard's Douglas Melton are coming back into the light - and making discoveries that may soon bring lifesaving breakthroughs."

My question is - aren't we getting tired of being lied to yet? The hype in the Time article is ridiculous, meant only to sway people to a political point of view. Let's separate all this rhetoric from what we actually know.
  1. There was no ban on stem cell research. Even though articles carried headlines of the "federal stem cell research ban", there was never a ban on this type of research. The Bush administration disallowed any federal funding for creating new lies of embryonic stem cells - in other words destroying more embryos just to get stem cells from them. Federal money was available to do research on existing lines of embryonic stem cells. And private investment in embryonic development was always allowable, but not as readily found for reasons we will see.
  2. Embryos don't need to be destroyed for this research to continue. Just last year, UCLA scientists announced that they were able to create pluripotent stem cells - cells with all the same potential as embryonic cells - from human skin, thus confirming earlier successes by other scientists. Katherine Plath, one of the lead scientists on the project said "Our reprogrammed human skin cells were virtually indistinguishable from human embryonic stem cells." If this is true, then why are we so up in arms over the federal restrictions? Look what it helped accomplish - scientists looked for other ways to get to the same cell types without an ethical quandary and were successful. Everybody wins.
  3. Embryonic stem cell research is not the only game in town. Over and over again, articles like the one in Time fail to differentiate the types of stem cell research that are being investigated. Embryonic stem cells, those which come from human embryos, are only one type of research being performed - and that type isn't even the most successful research happening. Adults create stem cells naturally as well and in this field of research we're seeing real advances all the time.
The latest example is how a stem cell treatment can reverse multiple sclerosis symptoms by using the patient's own stem cells. This is a major breakthrough and has no ethical problems whatsoever, yet articles like that in Time never differentiate the success and ethical issues dividing adult stem cells and Let me emphasis this point - there are no successful clinical trials of any treatment using embryonic stems cells anywhere in the world. None . According to the Susan Martinuk of the Calgary Herald, "The U.S. Food and Drug Administration just approved a clinical trial for an ESC treatment for spinal cord injuries, thereby making the U. S. the first in the world to conduct a human ESC clinical trial." She then goes on to offer a very candid assessment of the field:
But many private companies have been reluctant to fund embryo research because it involves morally controversial techniques and, so far, has shown few signs of success. Most preliminary research indicates that adult stem cells are the key to new cures and treatments, so they're jumping on that bandwagon. This is the real reason government funding is so essential to ESC research—few private investors view it as a future success.
In contrast, adult stem cells from bone marrow and stem cells obtained from umbilical cord blood are already curing diseases. While scientists are heralding the success of their FDA approval for the world's first clinical trial using ESCs, more than 1,000 clinical trials are underway or have been completed using ASCs. Dozens of cures have been seen in trials and the FDA has already approved ASC treatments for nine different conditions. Other ASC treatments have been approved for use in other countries, but are still in the process of gaining FDA approval.
Duke University is using umbilical cord blood to treat children with brain injuries and cerebral palsy. The Texas Heart Institute is treating patients with heart disease by injecting their own ASCs directly into the heart to stimulate healing and blood flow. Most recently, a woman's bone marrow cells were used to grow the new windpipe she so badly needed.
The first step to enlightenment isn't Barack Obama. It's acknowledging the only thing holding back embryonic stem cell research is that it might not work. In the Los Angeles Times, Susan Estrich claimed that those against destroying embryos for research purposes were playing "selfish politics mandated by those who don't give a damn". Really? Where's the track record here? Who's obfuscating the issues? Why don't private investors see the same rich potential in embryonic stem cells as adult cells? And if it's because they don't want to get caught in an ethical quandary, then why not advance the creation of pluripotent cells from human skin instead of embryos. It seems to me that Estrich and Time are the ones playing politics. If you're really worried about the kids, then follow success, not your agenda.

Image courtesy ZioDave - Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


  1. Thanks for this post. I'm tired of the lies, if no one else is! I appreciate your patient work to clear it up.

  2. Excellent. And now, here we are 7 years later . . . .


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