Politics & Policy

Brave New Future

Working together with stem cells.

On Tuesday, two scientific journals announced news of a breakthrough that could put an end to our dead-end political debates about stem-cell research. In response to the news, National Review Online asked a group of experts: How big is Tuesday’s new somatic-cell reprogramming news? Where does the stem-cell/cloning debate go from here? How should politics respond? Here’s what they had to say.

Dr. Maureen Condic

Direct reprogramming of human cells to produce “induced pluripotent state” or iPS cells is one of the most significant scientific findings of the twenty-five years. The power of direct reprogramming is that it generates stem cells that are genetically identical to patients without destroying human embryos or using human or animal eggs.  The iPS approach resolves the major ethical and practical difficulties associated with human cloning, and is therefore superior to cloning as a means of obtaining patient-specific pluripotent stem cells. While there are legitimate concerns regarding the safety of iPS cells for use in human patients, these concerns can almost certainly be addressed using currently available scientific technology.

Direct reprogramming very significantly alters the political and scientific landscape surrounding stem cell research. Because direct reprogramming is scientifically fascinating, remarkably simple and unrestricted for federal funding, the number of laboratories conducting stem cell research is likely to expand enormously, greatly accelerating the pace of discovery. The availability of an ethically and scientifically uncompromised source of pluripotent stem cells should be warmly embraced by all parties as a truly win-win resolution to the long-standing controversy over embryo-destructive research.

 – Maureen L. Condic, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah, School of Medicine.

William Hurlbut

The news represents very hopeful progress toward a complete resolution to the stem-cell impasse. I think the president deserves a lot of credit for challenging our nation to find a way forward with consensus. Likewise Rick Santorum and Norm Coleman in the Senate. It’s amazing and shameful that Congress couldn’t bring itself to support funding for such projects. Did you know that both Hillary and Obama voted against Coleman’s bill? Not what I’d call genuine leadership.

Another less evident but very important voice in this has been Mitt Romney. Three years ago he saw the “alternative methods” as a way forward through our national conflict and invited me back to the Massachusetts statehouse to talk with him about Altered Nuclear Transfer — and, in all fairness, I have to say that he struck me as genuinely and solidly pro-life at that time.

So, at least with regard to our national politics, it’s a sad chapter with a happy ending. It’s clear now there will be a solution, probably from both Direct Reprogramming and Altered Nuclear Transfer. If we hadn’t turned it into a partisan battle, the answer would have come months ago. If the money spent to fight over Proposition 71 (in California) and Amendment 2 (in Missouri) had been put to positive application in research, we might be years ahead of where we are now in advancing stem-cell research.

William B. Hurlbut is a physician and consulting physician at the Neuroscience Institute at Stanford University.

Leon R. Kass

Reprogramming of human somatic cells to pluripotency is an enormously significant achievement, one that boosters of medical progress and defenders of human dignity can celebrate without qualification. The evidence in the papers released Tuesday is complete and compelling: Cells as versatile and useful as embryonic stem cells, obtained without embryo creation and destruction or the need to exploit women for eggs. Best of all, these cells can be created from everyone — permitting the study of cells with different diseases and genetic makeup and, when stem-cell-based therapies eventually become available, providing rejection-proof tissues for personalized transplantation. The ethical and political benefits may be equally great. The alleged need for so-called therapeutic cloning — cloning embryos for research — is now passé. We can therefore disentangle the “life issue” of embryo-destruction from the “dignity issue” of baby manufacture, and enact a legislative ban on cloning and other degrading forms of baby-making, as recommended unanimously by the President’s Council on Bioethics: Prohibit all attempts to conceive a child by any means other the union of egg and sperm, both obtained from adults. Erecting such a barrier against the brave new world would be a great achievement, one that pro-lifers can now happily embrace without reservation.

Leon R. Kass, M.D., is Hertog Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Jennifer Lahl

Tuesday’s news on the somatic-cell reprogramming advances couldn’t have come at a better time. Amidst a cloning-research agenda that clamors for millions of human eggs and competes with the IVF industry to be able to pay hefty sums of money for those eggs, it is a great day to know that research will not progress at the expense of our young women. Kyoto University in particular, has quietly been pursuing techniques to reprogram human skin cells back to an embryonic-like state for some time now. The university’s strategic decision not to pursue embryo cloning research comes from a desire not to be embroiled in the ongoing fierce ethics debate — and they realize the dangerous health risks to young women in procuring their eggs. These researchers appear earnest in their pursuit of ethical science, and serious about the discovery of treatments for real patients that don’t come at the expense of others. Ends don’t always justify the means. And how we get somewhere is often more important than just getting there. For those of us who work tirelessly to stave off the cloning agenda, this is a happy day, one which we can be particularly thankful for this season!

– Jennifer Lahl is national director of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.

Peter Augustine Lawler

We’re clearly on the verge of developing one or more ways of readily acquiring pluripotent stem cells without having to destroy embryos. We can marvel that there is a technical solution to a moral problem, until we remember that the problem was the product of a very specific stage in scientific or technological progress. Even before the most recent breakthroughs, there was no reason not to expect such a solution.

This solution should be welcome news to all Americans. Fair-minded Americans see the nobility in both sides of our moral division over the destruction of embryos. Those who defend the embryo and those who promoted the unlimited progress of medical science both mean to serve human life, and it serves no one to believe that science — especially medical science — and morality are fundamentally opposed to each other. For our scientists, the moral resistance to the destruction of embryos — which they usually regard as nonsense-has gotten in the way of public funding for their research, not to mention grateful public acceptance of the beneficial results of their work.

Those who have resolutely defended the moral status of even early-term embryos have the most reason to cheer this latest episode of scientific progress. Their position would have probably become politically untenable had it turned out that the destruction of embryos is indispensable for the progress of regenerative medicine. But it turns out that it wasn’t only right — it was prudent — for them to hold out.

– Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Patrick Lee

Others have explained the truly momentous significance of this breakthrough from the standpoint of science and (eventually) health care. But this event also profoundly impacts the ongoing debate about the source and extent of human dignity. That debate has often been mistakenly characterized as a clash between science and religion. That is untrue: opposition to killing embryos has always been based on a combination of scientific facts (human embryos are distinct, whole human individuals at an early stage of development) and ethical reasoning open to all, religious or not (whole human individuals are subjects of rights and should not be dismembered to benefit others). Still, those of us who are religious should thank God for science, for scientists, and for men and women of principle who have persisted in this debate about human dignity. All are gifts from the creator (including those individuals who do not recognize him) and they bespeak the awesomeness of God’s creation. There is no deep-down, real opposition between science and religion. But today we should be especially grateful to practitioners of science. This recent work will surely help the most vulnerable among us, and we should be encouraged to continue our work for life.

– Patrick Lee is director of the Institute of Bioethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Nikolas T. Nikas & Dorinda C. Bordlee

As Winston Churchill said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” In a perfect world, today’s remarkable scientific advance should pave the way to bring all sides of the embryonic-stem-cell/human-cloning debate together in a common quest for aggressive yet ethical stem-cell research. Well it’s not a perfect world, but this advance makes it a little more perfect.

If market forces were at work, human-embryo cloning for research would quickly be beaten out by the more competitive and efficient method of direct reprogramming, which makes it possible today for any scientist to create the long sought after patient-specific stem cell lines. But some science groups, not all, will continue to seek our tax-dollars to fund what is now obsolete, and still unethical. Those who respect human rights in science must remain in the arena of democracy to advocate for the basic principle that human life should never be created for the purpose of being destroyed. Today’s advance sets forth a unique and unexpected opportunity for people of good will to work together for patients rather than politics.

– Nikolas T. Nikas and Dorinda C. Bordlee of Bioethics Defense Fund, a public interest legal organization whose mission includes advocating for human rights in science through litigation, legislation and public education.

O. Carter Snead

It would appear that researchers have delivered a means of exploring the promise of pluripotent cells without instrumentalizing and destroying human embryos. In addition, somatic-cell reprogramming seems also to be scientifically more useful and interesting than the competing approaches. Unlike stem cells derived from embryos originally conceived in the assisted reproductive context, iPS cells are patient-specific. Moreover, somatic cell reprogramming is further along than human cloning (i.e., somatic-cell nuclear transfer), which, as yet, has failed to produce a human embryo from which stem cells can be derived. So, congratulations to these brilliant scientists who through their ingenuity have apparently resolved one of the most controversial public policy issues in American life.

It is crucial at this point to remember what made this development possible. In addition to the genius of the researchers who pioneered this new technique, an equal share of credit must be given to those in the public square who insisted that cutting-edge biomedical research can and must respect ethical principles. Without these voices there would have been no incentive to pursue methods that respect the life of human beings at all stages of development. Such efforts added fuel to the fire of genius that drove these scientists to reach this extraordinary result.

– O. Carter Snead is an associate professor of law at the University of Notre Dame.

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