Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Simple Stem Cell Deception [Serge]

One of the first arguments that came from those supporting the destruction of human embryos is that Yamanaka's work came from previous work on ESCRs. James Thompson, the original discoverer of human ESCs and one who repeated Yamanaka's work, states it plainly:

In fact, work by U.S. and Japanese teams that reprogrammed skin cells depended entirely on previous embryonic stem cell research.

Thompson's comment implies that Yamamaka used a technique developed originally by killing human embryos and extracting their stem cells. If this technique had not been developed by intrepid scientists working around Bush's virtual ban on ESCR, Yamamaka's work could not have progressed. The New York Times accepted this story without question, stating:

Dr. Thomson also stressed that neither his nor the Japanese work could have been performed were it not for the knowledge gained over the past decade in human embryonic stem cell research — the very research that Mr. Bush has striven mightily to limit.
The only problem is this line of reasoning is deceptive at best and untrue at worst. First of all, the description of the technique that Yamamaka has developed did not depend on killing human embryos at all. In fact, Yamamaka has admitted that he had never even worked with embryos or human ova prior to his discovery:

"Neither eggs nor embryos are necessary. I've never worked with either," says Shinya Yamanaka.
Yamamaka was not a researcher in ESCR. He developed his technique outside of those used by traditional ESCR methods.

There is a grain of truth in that having a source of ESCs allowed Yamamaka and other researchers to verify the markers that his pluripotent cells did act like ESCs. Furthermore additional ESCs will be needed to verify the results in the future. However, there should be no reason to kill embryos to get them. The lines that are federally funded should be very adequate to verify the pluripotency of the newly developed cells.

There is no evidence anywhere to suggest that Bush's policy of only funding ESC lines on embryos that had already been killed delayed Yamamaka's research at all. Clearly it did not effect his research on mice embryos which was reported in June - because there are no restrictions on ESCR in mice. There is no evidence that the very short six month window it took to repeat the results in humans would have been even shorter if we killed millions of embryos. There certainly is no evidence to suggest that easing restrictions of the destruction of human embryos will help this promising research at all.

These facts are easily verifiable, but once again the scientific establishment and the naive media accept the distortion wholesale.

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