The politics of stem cells are stuck in a repeating loop. This week, the House of Representatives will again take up a bill to overturn President Bush’s embryonic-stem-cell-funding policy, and to use taxpayer dollars to encourage the destruction of human embryos for research. The Congress already passed such a bill last year, and the president vetoed it. In fact, the House already passed that bill again just this January, the Senate passed a slightly altered version in April, and now the House is passing that Senate version to send it to the president. The replay will continue next week, too, when President Bush again vetoes the bill, and the Congress once more fails to come up with the votes to override the veto.
And yet on the ground stem-cell science is hardly in a state of déjà vu. While opponents of the Bush policy again and again trot out their tired arguments in Washington, scientific developments continue to point in a different direction — away from the false opposition of science and ethics and toward a potential consensus solution.
That solution, if it pans out, would involve the production of cells with the characteristics and abilities of embryonic stem cells, but without requiring the destruction of embryos. The President’s Council on Bioethics examined a few possible ways of doing this in a brief paper two years ago, and since that time just about all the possibilities they examined have seen some real-world progress. The most appealing of the techniques they looked at involves chemically reprogramming adult cells to function like embryonic stem cells — essentially producing the kind of cells researchers want but without the need for an embryo.
In its 2005 report, the bioethics council considered such “somatic cell reprogramming” the most ethically attractive but least scientifically feasible of the alternatives they examined. But they were wrong on the latter point. Within months of their report, studies began to emerge showing real progress toward such reprogramming. A team at Harvard took one key step in August of 2005, another in Japan published an impressive advance last summer, and word has trickled out from several labs of similar efforts underway.
Today, that trickle has turned into a serious flow. The coming week’s issue of the journal Nature, made available online this morning, contains several extensive reports of surprisingly significant advances toward full-blown somatic-cell reprogramming.
The key publication comes from a team at MIT led by the prominent stem-cell scientist Rudolph Jaenisch. Working in mouse cells, they took the results of the 2006 Japanese effort, corrected some key flaws, introduced several improvements, and produced cells that appeared to pass all the critical tests of so-called “pluripotency” — the ability to be transformed into a large variety of cell types, which scientists so value about embryonic stem cells.
The team states its startling conclusion in the usual mild-mannered scientific deadpan: “Our results show that the biological potency and epigenetic state of in-vitro-reprogrammed induced pluripotent cells are indistinguishable from those of embryonic stem cells.” They assert with confidence that their findings “establish that somatic cells can be reprogrammed to a pluripotent state that is similar, if not identical, to that of normal embryonic stem cells.” In other words a regular adult cell, like one of your skin cells, can be turned into the equivalent or near-equivalent of an embryonic stem cell, and without the need for any embryos. These are truly astonishing findings, unimaginable just a few years ago.
This is just one study, to be sure. But it is one of several published just this week, and one of a growing number over the past two years that begin to establish more firmly the principle that embryo-destruction may simply not be necessary for the benefits that scientists have found in embryonic stem cells. The Jaenisch paper, and the others published this week, seem likely to become lasting landmarks on the path toward ethically uncontroversial stem-cell science.
But the Democrats in Congress have barely noticed any of this. The latest iteration of their stem=cell funding bill does include some language offering support to the development of these alternatives, but it comes joined to language that would use taxpayer dollars to encourage embryo destruction. Even as they gesture toward the possibility of common ground, they push it away and turn their backs. Indeed, today, in advance of tomorrow’s stem-cell funding vote, the Democratic leadership reportedly plans a vote on a bill to protect the practice of producing human embryos by cloning and then destroying them for research (and in the usual Orwellian fashion the bill presents itself as a ban on human cloning).
Now more than ever, the premise behind President Bush’s stem-cell funding policy — that science and ethics can be championed together, rather than set in opposition to each other — seems supported by the latest stem-cell science. And now more than ever, the course chosen by the leaders of Congress seems like pure political cynicism.