Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Yes, It's Great News, But...[SK]

Yuval Levin writes of a major scientific breakthrough that gives us embryonic stem cells without creating, then killing, embryonic human beings:

Two prominent scientific journals—Science and Cell—are each today publishing papers that demonstrate extraordinary success with a technique called “somatic cell reprogramming.” Working separately, and using slightly different methods, these two teams (one of which is led by James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin, the original innovator of human embryonic stem cells) have each successfully taken a regular human skin cell and transformed it into what appears to be the equivalent of an embryonic stem cell—all without the need for embryos, or eggs, or any other ethically controversial methods. The resulting cells (which they call induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells) have passed all the tests for “pluripotency” and seem to function just like embryonic stem cells. Again, they’ve done this in humans, not just in animals. Thomson’s team puts the matter plainly in the usual scientific deadpan: “The human iPS cells described here meet the defining criteria we originally proposed for human ES [embryonic stem] cells, with the significant exception that the iPS cells are not derived from embryos.” In other words: embryonic stem cells not from embryos. A "significant exception" indeed.
This is incredible news that should excite everyone, regardless of one's view about ESCR. But don’t think for a moment that advocates of destructive embryo research are going to just go away. True, they say they want cures, but given their rhetoric on adult stem cell research, it seems they also want dead embryos. In short, this new (and indeed, exciting!) breakthrough will not resolve the bitter worldview conflict over what makes humans valuable in the first place. Are we valuable for what we are intrinisically or only valuable for what we can do instrumentally? We will still have to fight that battle, no matter what science gives us.


  1. Let me quote the last line of the actual paper:

    "Human iPS cells, however, are not identical to hES cells: DNA microarray analyses detected differences between the two pluripotent stem cell lines. Further studies are essential to determine whether human iPS cells can replace hES in medical applications."

    So, in other words, all the ES restrictions have done is make many smart people waste a tremendous amount of resources to generate something of questionable utility.

    Since ethical non-Christians don't seem to have any problems with ESC research(they're doing it in Iran!) I guess they will continue, as they should.

  2. Mr. Gunn,
    You are right the cells in the studies are not "identical" to ES cells, but isn't that beside the point? At issue is whether they function like ES cells and have similar therepeutic value. Both studies suggest that perhaps they do.

    All of this assumes, of course, that scientists can overcome the problems associated with ES cells in the first place, for example, their tendency to form tumors and the fact it's difficult to control them once implanted.

    In light of these difficulties, your claim that ES "restrictions" (pray tell, what restrictions?) waste valuable resources is somewhat ironic given adult-stem cells are treating over 80 known conditions while your beloved embryo cells are treating none.

    Just for the record, destructive embryo research is legal in the U.S. Perhaps you didn't know that. To review, President Bush's 2001 directive didn't restrict ESCR; it simply prevented tax-payers from having to fund it. That is to say, it upheld the provisions of the Dickey Ammendment that the Clinton administration illegally tried to subvert.

  3. Mr. Gunn,

    I am most confused by your last comment. "Since ethical non-Christians don't seem to have any problems with ESC research I guess they will continue,as they should."

    They should continue because as long as any group that considers itself ethical is performing an action then the action itself must be ethical? Or is it that you approve of their ethical position that gives their practices moral approval? Your "should" implies an "ought to" and then we are getting in to deep waters with our philosophical judgements. You seem well qualified to address the science of stem cell research, the mechanics and experimental processes. How does this experience then lead you to be qualified to determine the value of life and the differences between epistemic knowledge and ontological truth?

    I ask that question because many scientists and journalists seem to fail to perceive when they have ventured from home and entered into someone else's yard. Sort of like a movie star advising us on international relations. What does that have to do with your skill set? When a person with your background is advising me that there are differences in the nature of the cells produced from one group to another, I am all ears and will consider your point. When you turn around and tell me that because even the Iranians are doing a specific research (by the way, not a selling point on ethics) then it is demonstrated that we are just backward Christians for standing between scientists and their biogenetic destined victory, then I am wondering on what grounds I am compelled to accept your position over my own. This requires you to construct an argument and put it forward.

    An appeal to numbers is a bad way to start your argument in this field, by the way.

  4. Well said both in the article and in the comments.


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