Editor’s Note: On May 25, 2006, an article by Eric Cohen was published on NRO arguing that criticisms of current federal policy on funding stem-cell research are flawed. Published here is a critique of Cohen’s article by Jonathan Moreno and Sam Berger, followed by a response from Cohen.
Moreno and Berger write:
In an article entitled “Stem-Cell Sense” on NRO, Eric Cohen set out a number of arguments against the passage of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which would increase the number of stem-cell lines eligible for federal funding. He relies on four major contentions: embryonic-stem-cell research is not proceeding as quickly as believed; contamination issues with the currently approved lines are no longer a problem; there is no threat to American leadership in stem-cell research; and there is not substantial support among the American people for increasing funding for eligible lines. Taken together, these arguments would prove quite persuasive, if not for the fact that the first three are factually inaccurate and the fourth is overstated. In fact, there is abundant evidence that we must increase the number of stem-cell lines the government funds, and the American people understand this.
Cohen argues that contamination issues with the currently eligible stem-cell lines, which used animal feeder cells, have been mitigated by recent scientific advances. Specifically, he cites an article by James Thomson in Nature Biotechnology that Cohen says proves there is no need to worry about contamination. Thomson’s paper, however, addresses methods of deriving stem-cell lines without the contamination by animal cells present in currently NIH eligible lines. Thomson concludes that “human-ES-cell lines derived in defined conditions would be more directly applicable to clinical use than are cell lines derived in the presence of animal products. … Derivation and culture in serum-free, animal product-free, feeder-independent conditions mean that new human-ES-cell lines could be qualitatively different from the original lines, and makes current public policy in the United States increasingly unsound.”
Cohen also misstates the conclusions to be drawn from a report by Jennifer McCormick and Jason Owen-Smith in Nature Biotechnology entitled “An International Gap in Human ES Cell Research.” Cohen argues that the report shows that America is retaining its dominance in embryonic-stem-cell research because it has published 46 percent of all articles on the subject. This fact ignores the actual conclusion of the study, which is that the U.S. is seeing its dominance of the field decline. The report found that in 2002 about one-third of the ten articles published on embryonic-stem-cell research were from the U.S.; by 2004 that percentage had dropped to around a quarter of the 77 articles published. The report concluded that there was a growing gap between the rate of international publication and that of U.S. publications, and that “with current trajectories, if things don’t change, that gap is going to continue.”
Cohen’s use of polling data also suffers from some inaccuracies. He is correct in his assertion that the CAMR poll showing that 72 percent of Americans support embryonic-stem-cell research did not address President Bush’s specific stem-cell policy. Polling that has addressed that issue, however, has found that an overwhelming number of Americans support a more permissive federal funding policy. In a recent poll by the Genetics and Public Policy Center, around 60 percent of people support federal funding either to derive new stem-cell lines or to fund research on new lines derived through private funding.
In the end, Cohen is left with the argument that embryonic-stem-cell research has produced “no therapeutics applications, or even human trials.” But surely we could expect nothing more from a field that is barely eight years old and, unlike other promising new areas of science, has not received adequate federal funding and support. The notion that we should not fund research because it will be some time before we have clinical applications is self-defeating. In adopting this impatient posture, Cohen betrays a failure to understand the nature of medical research, which is a painstaking process that can take decades to bear its full fruit.
Cohen also ignores the advances that embryonic-stem-cell research has caused in drug development and testing. Already, for example, Australian scientists have used embryonic stem cells to grow human prostates in mice in order to study prostate cancer, and scientists in Scotland and Italy have used embryonic stem cells to create nerve cells to test new drugs for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Whatever the merits of embryonic-stem-cell research prove to be, the debate has verified one proposition: politicized discussions of scientific issues are likely to end in hyperbole.
–Jonathan D. Moreno, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the Progressive Bioethics Initiative. He is the Emily Davie and Joseph S. Kornfeld Professor of Biomedical Ethics and Director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Virginia. Sam Berger is a Research Assistant at the Center for American Progress.
Jonathan Moreno and Sam Berger suggest there is “abundant evidence that we must increase the number of stem-cell lines the government funds,” but they fail to make a compelling case, or to demonstrate the faults they claim to find in my May 25 NRO article.
First, they quote the concluding words of a recent study (subscription required) by James Thomson, but ignore the body of the paper in which Thomson’s group shows that the culturing techniques they developed were able to remove animal materials from several of the existing federally funded embryonic-stem-cell lines. (They used approved lines H1, H7, H9, and H14, and provide the most detailed results for H9.) Their work using these eligible lines for the study was in fact funded by the NIH. Similar studies — like those published in the April 11 and May 2 (subscription required) issues of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — have shown similar results with other approved lines. Referring to these kinds of recent advances, Geron CEO Tom Okarma said in a recent interview, “The stuff you hear published that all of those lines are irrevocably contaminated with mouse materials and could never be used in people — hogwash. If you know how to grow them, they’re fine.” If Moreno and Berger have a quarrel with me on this point, then they have a quarrel with Okarma, one of the leading figures in the embryonic-stem-cell movement.
Moreno and Berger then note that a recent study by Jennifer McCormick and Jason Owen-Smith “found that in 2002 about one-third of the 10 articles published on embryonic-stem-cell research were from the U.S.; by 2004 that percentage had dropped to around a quarter of the 77 articles published.” In other words, the study found there were nearly seven times as many embryonic-stem-cell publications by Americans in 2004 (20 articles) as there had been only two years earlier (3 articles), a finding that hardly supports the notion of a field stifled by federal funding rules. The study then compared these results to publications in the rest of the world combined and found, not surprisingly, that this combined output grew even faster than America’s output alone. Combined global output would outpace just about any individual nation in any area of science in any period of years, though it is hard to see what exactly there is to learn from such a comparison. What the study does not show is any nation challenging America’s dominance of the field. Indeed, the study, as I had noted, showed that 46 percent of all worldwide embryonic-stem-cell publications have been by Americans, while the remaining 54 percent have been divided among 17 other nations. My article referred to this study to show that Senator Dianne Feinstein’s assertion that the Bush funding policy “has allowed other countries to move ahead of the United States in this important area of cutting-edge medical research” is completely unfounded. The study does indeed demonstrate exactly that.
Moreno and Berger then refer to my discussion of public-opinion polling. I cited this CBS poll, which found that, while 58 percent of those questioned approved of embryonic-stem-cell research, only 37 percent actually wanted to fund more stem-cell lines. This, I argued, helps to show that “support for embryonic-stem-cell research does not necessarily translate into support for a federal funding policy that promotes and pays for the ongoing destruction of human embryos.” Moreno and Berger ignore that poll and point instead to this one, which found that 67 percent of those questioned approved of embryonic-stem-cell research while 59 percent wanted a more liberal funding policy (19 percent of those questioned supported the Castle-DeGette plan and 40 percent supported an even more permissive policy, while 22 percent supported the Bush policy and 16 percent supported an even more restrictive policy). Still other polls have reached vastly different conclusions: One recent poll conducted by embryo research advocates, as noted in my article, showed 72 percent support for the research but didn’t ask about funding; another more-recent poll conducted by opponents found that only 39 percent of Americans support any federal funding at all for embryonic-stem-cell research, but didn’t ask about general feelings of support for the research. These vast differences point to the softness and instability of public opinion on this issue, but all of these results support the simple point that “support for embryonic stem-cell research does not necessarily translate into support for a federal funding policy that promotes and pays for the ongoing destruction of human embryos” — which was the point my article made.
Finally, Moreno and Berger accuse me of arguing that because embryonic-stem-cell research has produced no clinical applications and led to no human trials so far, it should not be funded. But this was not my argument against the research. Taking up a specific claim by Senator Feinstein that embryonic-stem-cell research had made great strides toward therapeutic applications, I pointed out that no such strides had taken place, and then I noted: “This is not to deny the potential — and potentially unique — value of research using embryonic stem cells. But the excessive hype has long been premature and irresponsible.” Surely Moreno and Berger would agree with that. They refer to one study that developed adult stem cells from embryonic stem cells, and another (subscription required) that used a Bush-approved embryonic-stem-cell line (although Moreno and Berger do not mention this fact) to produce prostate-like tissue. Neither study makes their point, or refutes mine.
I oppose the destruction of nascent human life for research not because it is unsuccessful but because it is unethical. My article sought to address the kinds of arguments that opponents of the Bush policy most often make — arguments about technical details that are often poorly grounded in the facts. But even as we answer these arguments, it is equally important to remember that the Bush policy does not finally rest on arguments about scientific utility but on moral and democratic principle. The current policy would not change — and the moral principle it upholds would not change — even if it were true that the approved lines were “contaminated” or that American stem-cell scientists were falling behind foreign counterparts.
That said, it is often worth answering serious critics on their own terms, and so it is worth pointing out that the various technical critiques of the Bush policy and the approved lines are not especially persuasive. But critics of the Bush policy should also address its supporters on their own terms, and rather than argue only about scientific adequacy, they should consider seriously the moral dilemma the policy seeks to address. More funding with fewer restrictions would certainly allow more embryonic-stem-cell research to take place, but it would also put the government (and every American taxpayer) in the position of encouraging the ongoing destruction of nascent human life for research. Too many critics see only one side of this equation; they believe we “need” more lines, but fail to confront what is transgressed in meeting this supposed need. The Bush policy, by contrast, seeks to advance cutting-edge science and to respect fundamental moral boundaries. It is hardly a perfect policy, but the case for preserving it remains considerably stronger than the case for overturning it.