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Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

The Atlantic Monthly Gets the Stem Cell Story Wrong--Again



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Periodically, the Atlantic Monthly magazine publishes stories on biotech. These tend to be fawning puff pieces about the coming wonders of therapeutic cloning or, on occasion, warnings about the problems biotech is spawning for society.

There are two constants in these stories. First, they accept almost as a matter of course that all of the hyped promises of cloning and embryonic stem cell research will soon come to pass. No jaundiced eyes in the Atlantic Monthly! Second, they often get basic facts wrong.

"The Coming Death Shortage" by Charles C. Mann in the May 2005 edition keeps up the tradition. Mann assumes that embryonic stem cell research and other forms of biotech will, within this century, dramatically extend human life spans to the point that we may soon live in "a world of 200-year-olds."

Stories like this are so overblown they usually aren't worth a mention. However, Mann claims that "the Bush Administration" has placed "so many strictures on stem-cell research that scientists complain it has been effectively banned in this country." The scientists' lament is patently untrue. But this canard has been repeated so many times by ESCR advocates that it has been transformed into perceived wisdom.

Mann claims that the Bush policy has driven the science over to China, where ESCR is practiced so freely that Chinese scientists are now deluged with offers from eager American venture capitalists seeking to throw money into the research. "Sooner or later," Mann warns darkly, "in one nation or another, someone ...will cut a deal: frozen embryos for financial backing."

Well baloney. First, the only limits Bush placed on ESCR is on federal funding of stem cell lines created after 8/9/01. Indeed, the feds have poured tens of millions into ESCR under the Bush guidelines. Moreover, it is perfectly legal under federal law to engage in ESCR to scientists' hearts content. Geron Corp. in Menlo Park, CA, for example, is actively pursuing ESCR, and Harvard researchers recently created a new series of embryonic stem cell lines backed by private money.

This means that if venture capitalists were so hot to trot for ESCR, they wouldn't have to go to China: There are bounteous opportunities for them cut the frozen embryo deals right here.

That they are not doing so in large numbers, as has been frequently reported in the business press, is primarily because their due diligence convinces venture capitalists that ESCR and its close sibling, therapeutic cloning, are not likely to generate a profitable return any time soon. Not wanting to throw their money into a black hole, venture capitalists instead zip up their wallets.

That is why Big Biotech and its supporters in university life science institutes masterminded the raid on the California treasury known as Proposition 71. They knew that voters desperate for cures, unlike venture capitalists, wouldn't do the extended research necessary to uncover the hype and speculation that is the backbone of ESCR and cloning research advocacy.


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