Human Exceptionalism

Doing the Stem Cell Pivot

Now that Big Biotech has won elections in CA and MO, and the Bush funding policy is on the ropes, Big Biotech and their boosters in the media are changing their stories. Whereas before, it was about direct CURES! CURES! CURES!, now it is about basic research, which is touted as just as good–with nary a word of criticism for the earlier, shall we say, misdirection. Along these lines, a front page story in the San Francisco Chronicle touts a research success using ES cells from mice:

One argument for [embryonic] stem cell research is that it might generate fresh replacement cells for those destroyed by such horrific diseases as ALS, the paralyzing nervous system disorder popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The latest research suggests those predictions might be unrealistic…The findings may be the most dramatic example yet of the idea that stem cells are more valuable as a “disease model”–used to study disease–rather than a simple source of replacement parts…

The new studies, done in mice specially bred to mimic a form of ALS, implicate a soluble toxic factor, not yet identified, that appears to be leaching out of disease-causing astrocytes, selectively killing off any motor neurons in the area. “The cells that surround the neurons don’t sit back and do nothing,” Przedborski said in a telephone interview. “You have to take into account the overall situation. There’s a neighborhood effect–a good guy in a bad neighborhood has a greater chance to turn bad.”

So it would make no sense to go to the trouble of replacing dead or dying neurons in the nervous system of an ALS patient without first cleaning up the neighborhood. “If you take those healthy stem cells to try to repair the diseased system, you are going to implant those nice cells into a diseased environment, and they may not survive very well,” Przedborski said.

Much such basic research, of course, could be conducted with Bush approved lines. But some couldn’t. Since humans can’t be bred to have specific diseases like lab mice can, human experiments would require stem cells derived from genetically altered embryos, or from those made to have a specific disease propensity using cloning, the latter point being specifically mentioned in the story.

What is not mentioned, however, is that stem cells have not yet been derived from cloned human embryos and indeed, that it may take many years and billions of dollars for researchers to learn how to clone human embryos reliably and derive ES cell lines from them. Plus, there is the egg issue, which we have addressed often here at Secondhand Smoke.

So this seems to be the bottom line: ESCR as direct cures seems to be losing steam–but this will not be admitted in any area where the controversy still rages. Expect the same intensity for ESCR as a basic research model as we have seen for direct cures. Human cloning, financed by taxpayers, is the ultimate goal, which, if successful, would then open many “opportunities” for experiments well beyond early embryos in Petri dishes.

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