June 21, 2007

Putting Politics over Progress on Stem Cells

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Congress has returned to its old games on embryonic stem cells. Having just passed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007, which federally funds embryonic stem cells, Congress forced President Bush’s hand into vetoing this legislation. Democrats have pledged to override Bush’s veto, but they face one critical obstacle: they do not have enough votes. The act passed 63-34 in the Senate and 247-167 in the House, both short of the requisite two-thirds vote to override a veto.

Embryonic stem cells, while offering potential for dramatic therapies and cures, have always raised controversy because some consider embryos to be a form of human life. Now, the most recent legislation only allows leftover embryos intended for fertility treatments, not research, to be used if the embryos would otherwise be discarded. The problem, though, as decades of court decisions on abortion have taught us, is that “intended for fertility treatments” can be broadly construed just as the “health exception” that allows abortions is. One can easily donate embryos to fertility clinics where excess embryos already exist or, even worse, to fertilization clinics built by private researchers in places where demand for fertility treatments is small, just like one can easily write off an unwanted pregnancy by finding some obscure way it affects the individual’s health. While a woman has few practical alternatives in her mind to an unwanted pregnancy besides abortion, however, alternatives to embryonic stem cells offer much more potential and progress, making this moral controversy unnecessary.

A major recent development in stem cell research has tipped the balance away from embryonic stem cells. Scientists have discovered a way to create stem cells from regular skin cells in mice. MIT stem cell biologist Rudolf Jaenisch described these cells as “identical to embryonic stem cells.” So why promote embryonic stem cells with their moral controversies, when you have new, identical technology that can thrive with federal funding that avoids the moral dilemma?

Even before this development, adult stem cells, unlike their embryonic counterparts, have managed to find their way into the news several times. Back in 2005, the Heritage Foundation noted that blood from umbilical cords has treated 66 diseases and over 6,000 patients. Meanwhile, not a single clinical human trial on embryonic stem cell has been conducted. Embryonic therapies have probably made some progress since 2005, but the basic fact remains the same: other stem cells have a better track record. Even if embryonic stem cells have a couple of success stories, they do not represent an efficient use of money. Emphasizing the need for embryonic stem cells makes about as much sense as the Toronto Blue Jays leaving pitcher Tomo Ohka in the starting rotation. Toronto wised up and released Ohka because of his lack of results. Hopefully, we can come to the same realization for embryonic stem cells.

Although I have recognized this fact, it did not occur to me immediately. I supported this legislation in the past; even former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist did, and today Giuliani and McCain are supporters. However, every time I see progress with other stem cells, and every time I go deeper with my research, my support for this legislation slowly fades away. One Republican presidential candidate who opposes this legislation, Mitt Romney, had a similar experience. In fact, evaluating embryonic stem cells and cloning in-depth played a huge role changing his political views into the staunch pro-life stance he currently holds. Today, he opposes this legislation, instead pushing for more ethical options such as Altered Nuclear Transfer. In fact, I believe many people who go beyond the rhetoric and emotional appeals would find this stance agreeable. The practical benefits of the alternatives do not justify raising moral issues by continually pushing embryonic stem cells.

Meanwhile, another bill in the Senate, S. 30, the “Hope Offered through Principled and Ethical Stem Cell Research Act” or “HOPE Act,” avoids funding research that destroys embryos. Instead, it promotes the development of other stem cells, including pluripotent stem cells — stem cells that have the potential to change into multiple (or plural) cell types, offering flexibility similar to what embryonic stem cells offer. The Senate passed this legislation by a 70-28 margin. Now not only would President Bush agree to this bill, but the Senate could override the President’s veto even if he did not agree to it. No word on whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi would be willing to compromise by letting the House vote on this, or whether she’ll choose to play politics once again.

The Democratic Congress, now enjoying an approval rating lower than Bush’s, the lowest since the final days of the Democratic Congress in 1994 (just before the Republicans gained 54 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate), faces two choices. It can continue to push this polarizing course of action on embryonic stem cells, making another hollow promise to override Bush’s veto. Or, given the recent developments of alternative stem cell techniques, the proven track record of adult stem cells, and the bipartisan consensus behind alternatives to embryonic stem cell research, House Democrats can pass the HOPE Act and send it to the President’s desk to be signed. If they do not, hope will fade, both for the HOPE Act and for the Democratic Congress.

  • Lan Lan

    This legislation should not be used as a political front for an on going war against abortion. However, this is exactly what it’s turning out to be. The vetoing of this bill marks a sad day in that an option to save lives is being killed. The option itself to use embryonic stem cells, and for it to be eligible to receive federal funding is much more important and critical than the actual usage. It’s always better to have more options on the table than less. You never know when it’ll be needed.

  • Anonymous

    The argument for embryonic research I always hear is that it is “what the people want! This is a democracy!” But, it isn’t. We live in a representative republic designed to help protect the rights of minorities. When I saw the headline for this article I immediately assumed I was going to be commenting to make this argument against the legislation. Using the police power of the government to collect money from people, and spend it on something that is so clearly iniquitous to so many, justifies the use of a veto. I honestly can’t support or reject the science behind the study of embryonic stem cells because I don’t know all of the facts. But I can say that I support Bush for having the ability to not take the road of political expediency.

    Great article. A lot of facts I did not know about stem cells. A refreshing turn from the way the media normally reacts to this issue.

  • Dan Rhoads

    Two things:

    First, I’m not entirely clear why the Congressional approval rating might be low. Speaking from my perspective, I assume that it is because they caved so quickly on the Iraq spending bill; or maybe they’re just giving in too easily on a host of issues.

    Second, and I think this is related, HOPE is a half-measure. It continues to permit the disposal of in vitro fertilized (IVF) embryos, and puts a limit on progress. It makes promises regarding alternative sources of stem cells that are not clear to even the top scientists studying them. And it also blurs the line on what researchers would actually be using from IVF embryos that would otherwise be destined for the trash – these are blastocysts, in the earliest stages of development, and no more than a ball of cells.

    We, and Congress, should not cave to pressure from would-be theocratic ideologues, and while HOPE might provide a half measure until we are rid of the worst president in living memory, it does just what your title suggests: It puts politics over science.

  • Anonymous

    In your third paragraph you ask the question “So why promote embryonic stem cells with their moral controversies, when you have new, identical technology that can thrive with federal funding that avoids the moral dilemma?” The simple answer is that WE DO NOT KNOW IF IT WILL WORK ON HUMANS. The research was only done on mice and to be effective in humans will take years of research on embryonic stem cells. Marius Wernig, a member of the MIT Whitehead Institute research team on the project had this to say when presenting the results, “It is now really important to continue, if not intensify, our research on human embryonic stem cells.”
    I find it very sad to today science has become debatable in partisan politics and that the religious views of a few people are preventing the health and well being of many.

  • John Bacon

    Don’t put much weight into the adult/embryonic comparison, Mike. No stem cell scientist in the world will deny that embryonic stem cells hold more potential than adult stem cells — when you hear about the “track records” of these two stem cells, what you are hearing is accurate, but neglects the fact that adult stem cells have been studied and utilized for nearly half a century while embryonic stem cells have only come about in the past decade. Add to that the fact that embryonic stem cells are still struggling to gain a place in practical medical practice today and it’s rather self-explanatory as to why we’ve seen more so far out of adult stem cells.

    Regardless, if embryonic stem cells do NOT hold the potential that we have thought of, scientists will naturally move away from their use. This has not been the case so far.

  • Morgan

    Hypocrisy has no limits Mr Wacker! Your article is one of the most idiotic arguments I have read so far.
    You are blaming the congress that Bush is not smart enough to let this law pass?
    Don’t you find it completely insane that the one person who has caused the death of over 3500 American soldiers and half a million innocent people of Iraq is trying to protect the life of embryos that would get discarded anyway?????

    GROW UP PEOPLE! OPEN THOSE EYES TO THE TRUTH OF THESE MONSTERS!

    I am sick of these evil men who are killing our kids every day for their own profit and power.

  • Anonymous

    It makes me sad to see how this president has killed another great scientific development opportunity. His presidency has left him a legacy where he is severely criticized for his war. This was his chance to shine but he has failed us again.

    He and his party seem to be completely out of touch with reality. He and his party are in favor of saving children from getting aborted while they are not in favor of saving the people whose problems can be cured in the future with the use of the development. I’m not in favor of abortion. This new science if used responsibility can help save a lot of lives.

    This day should be considered a sad day in the history of USA.

  • Anonymous

    It always strikes me as odd that some of the most passionate opponents of stem cell research have absolutely no background in science and might as well be debating rocket science for all they know. Congress is trying to fund research on cells that WILL BE THROWN AWAY if not used. I dont understand how throwing “a human life” in the trash is more ethical than ussing it for some good. This is very similar to the global warming skepticists. With absolutely no scientific training they say we cant be causing global warming simply because its hard for them to imagine. If you want to weigh in on this take some atmospheric chemistry courses. Untill then, once again, you might as well be debating the finer points of rocket science.

  • Schuyler

    I don’t support the war in Iraq. Does that mean that I can opt out of my tax money being used to support it?

  • GaryB

    As a conservative myself, I cannot tell you Mr. Wacker just how pleased I am that Government is telling scientist what to research and how to research. We must go further however, since it morally offends many, perhaps a majority of the US population, when scientist assume that the world is older than 7000 years, we should not fund and perhaps disallow altogether geology research except on recent landslides and erosion.

    That way, 7 years later, you Mr. Wacker can claim “anyhow, geology research that assumes an older earth has made little progress in the last 7 years since we stopped funding it, recent research is better”.

    Are you really as daft as you sound? There is absolutely no way of knowing whether embryonic stem cells will end up 100x more valuable than adult stem cells or not without letting people try. Sheesh! We should have abandoned flat panel display research because for years the quality and price performance gap between flat pannels and CRT tubes continued to get worse. Any friggin sensible political committee would have closed down the flat panels in the early 1990s. Enough was enough.

    Please carefully re-consider your conservative credentials. Perhaps you’re closer to your Islamic brethren where state sponsored morality is an open direct goal.

  • David E

    The most succinct take on this I have seen is by Bob Parks at the university of Maryland. To quote him from his April 13, 2007 “What’s New” newsletter:

    George W. Bush and other conservative theologians believe a “soul” is assigned to the fertilized egg at the instant of conception. That makes it a person, even though it’s not counted in the census. In-vitro fertilization makes a lot more of these one-celled people than it needs; leftovers are stacked in the freezer until it starts filling up. President Bush cares deeply about these helpless one-celled people and wants to ensure they are properly flushed down the disposal rather than exploited by godless scientists interested only the reduction of suffering.

  • Richard F

    Let me take a moment to remember why we do this research.
    I remember my aunt, who died of Parkinsons disease.
    I remember my father, who died of Parkinsons disease.

    We don’t know what causes the disease, we don’t know yet how to cure it. It is 100% fatal, sometimes quickly, sometimes not. We do know that about 4000 patients are diagnosed each month, and another 4000 or so die, each month, every month.

    Some ‘Christians’ are quick to point out that that they too want to see a cure despite their objectionss to the research. I believe this to be basically a lie and we should not be kind in calling it anything else. Their true position is that if no other cure can be found, excet through embryonic stem cell research, they would prefer for your family and mine to continue to die.

    In their religious fundamentalism they, and Mr Bush, and Bin Laden himself are quite alike. Quite comfortable to have you and I and your family, and mine continue to die for their religion.

    The only appropriate response is to ask them this question;
    “What are the names of the people in your family that you are willing to watch die while you maintain your position against this research?” Few will have the courage to answer.

    My Aunt’s name was Barbara, my father’s name was Hugh. I miss them both.

    The names of the 4000 patients which will be diagnosed with Parkinsons next month, and those that will die next month are, as yet, unknown. Your chances of being among that group sometime in your life are about 1 in 300. Are you comfortable allowing ‘christians’ to play roulette with your life?

  • Dr John T

    Dan,
    There are no such thing as totipotent stem cells. The only totipotent cells are the fertilized egg and the first few cells produced by it’s cleavage (how twins or triplets come about)and these do not multiply. Embryonic stem cells (ESC’s) are pluripotent (just like the MIT breakthrough). Regardless, the reason why there are no human trials with ESC’s are that animal trials have shown ESC’s to be uncontrollable and rejected when introduced into a subject—tumors and mutations occur. Everytime you see reported news about stem cell therapy breakthroughs, these are all adult stem cell therapies (which many media outlets fail to disclose or clearly state). Ironically, these reported (adult) “stem cell breakthroughs” are being used to try to justify further funding for ESC research. Many scientists/researchers argue that adult stem cells are all that may be needed to treat disease/disorders, and these therapies are working or much closer to reality than ESC treatments. Perhaps there is hope in embryonic stem cell research, but true hope lies in adult stem cell research/therapies.

  • Dan Rhoads

    (attempt #2 to post this comment – sorry if it double-posts)
    John T,
    What you present appears to be something along the lines of claims made by Prentice and Tarne in the January 19th issue of Science. For myself, I’m pretty convinced by Smith et al‘s rebuttal in the June 8th issue. Regarding reporting of stem cell therapies:

    “Clearly, enrollment of an experimental therapy in a clinical trial does not mean that it is an effective therapy. The purpose of clinical trials is, first, to establish safety and, second, to document efficacy. Many promising experimental therapies fail when they reach larger Phase II or III trials. Such is the case with adult stem cell therapy for heart attacks and breast cancer–two conditions for which Prentice and Tarne improperly claimed that adult stem cells provide effective therapy [see the Supporting Online Material of our Letter “Adult stem cell treatments for diseases?”, 28 July 2006, p. 439 (2)].”

    But yes, it’s true, that embryonic stem cell therapeutic trials have rarely gone to therapeutic trial. Remember, however, that there are only 21 ESC lines available, which are of questionable quality to begin with (Maitra et al, 2005). ESCs are “uncontrollable and rejected when introduced into a subject,” you are correct, but because of inadequate funding and resources, not because of anything intrinsic to ESCs.

  • Dan Rhoads

    Also, in response to your quibble over definitions on totipotency vs. pluripotency, I hope this will clarify a couple things: CNN discusses what Stem Cell research is…