An enduring liberal myth, that of the Republican “war on science,” got a subtle rebuke this week when the first and only patient to receive FDA-approved embryonic-stem-cell therapy publicly revealed his identity. Timothy J. Atchison, a 21-year-old nursing student, had been partially paralyzed in a car crash. Six months ago, scientists at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta sought to test on him the safety of a drug concocted from stem cells of the kind derived by destroying a human embryo.
Are you surprised to learn that this was the very first such clinical test of embryonic-stem-cell research (ESCR)? The news story about Timothy Atchison reminds us that unlike therapies from morally unobjectionable adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells so far have not cured anyone of anything.
“The Republican war on science” is a catchy phrase coined by journalist Chris Mooney in a 2005 book of the same name. According to the pervasively influential mythology, religious and other conservatives stand athwart medicine — and good science in other fields, too — in a campaign to force their antiquated beliefs on other people.
Well, let’s see now. Successful medical research has tangible results. People are healed, or they are not. From the hype that ESCR has received since 2001, when President Bush limited federal funding for it — a move reversed by President Obama — you might think it has shown the capacity to perform miracles. If so, you’ve been deceived.
Perhaps deliberately. In Minnesota right now, state GOP lawmakers are trying to ban the cloning of human embryos, a technology tied to embryonic-stem-cell research. Critics of the legislation say it’s just another instance of the war on science. To prove it, they brought forward a woman, Trisha Knuth, whose little boy, Charlie, has been relieved of a horrific skin disease by a stem-cell transplant.
The only problem with this story is that the therapy that healed Charlie uses adult stem cells, from a donor. Yet when Charlie’s mother testified impassionedly to the Minnesota legislature, you had to search carefully in media reports for the information that her son’s healing actually had no connection with embryonic stem cells.
“That happens all the time!” an exasperated Dr. Theresa Deisher told me. Deisher is the Stanford-trained biotech researcher whose lawsuit last year shut down government funding of ESCR for 17 days. I discovered that the controversial scientist, profiled recently in the journal Nature as the “Sarah Palin of stem cells,” works just up the street from me in Seattle. “People are treated with adult stem cells and they twist the story to promote embryonic stem cells,” she said.
Deisher’s lawsuit pointed to legislation passed yearly by Congress, the Dickey-Wicker amendment, that forbids government funding of research that entails the destruction of human embryos. In August, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction in her favor. The case will probably be resolved by the Supreme Court.
Deisher argues that far from being in conflict with medicine’s mission, traditional moral concerns are strongly in line with it. Embryonic-stem-cell research, ongoing for 30 years and lavishly funded by the National Institutes of Health, has no record of healing. Yet morally unproblematic adult stem cells have worked wonders — notably in other countries. U.S. federal funding for trials of novel treatments using these less politically correct stem cells has lagged.
Another researcher, neuroscientist Jean Peduzzi-Nelson of Wayne State University, testified before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee in September about the peer-reviewed but underreported advances that have been made using adult stem cells. In Portugal, several years before Timothy Atchison’s accident, a young man paralyzed by a severe spinal-cord injury was healed to the point of being able to walk 30 feet unassisted.
In the United States, too, reports the New England Journal of Medicine, patients suffering from corneal blindness can now see, and others suffering from sickle-cell anemia have gone years without symptoms. In 2003, at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, a man with multiple sclerosis received adult stem cells, and his symptoms disappeared in four months.
We can do well, helping people to get well, by doing good and refraining from doing harm to innocent life. How unfortunate that when it comes to treatments with adult stem cells — for stroke, diabetes, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and other maladies — the government is reluctant to make an adequate investment.
The dilemma that pits medicine against conservatism or science against religion is as false as the one that, in the climate debate, seeks to put capitalism and the environment in conflict. In a false dilemma, alternatives and gradations are arbitrarily excluded. That’s a technique of manipulation popular with activists seeking to drive a wedge between their political opponents and the public.
The real war here is not a war on science. It’s a war on truth.