Researchers at Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) have claimed publicly that they were able to derive embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryo. The story is international. Some of it is also clueless. The report in the the Guardian states that this purported breakthrough (I will explain why I use the word purported in a moment) “challenges” Bush. But the contrary is true. If there is indeed a way to derive embryonic stem cells without destroying an embryo it would validate Bush!
Here’s the point: Bush’s policy along with the arguments of ethicists such as Leon Kass, former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics and Council member William Hurlbut (who is the driving force behind Altered Nuclear Transfer, another potential way to find pluripotent cells without creating or destroying embryos) have kept nascent human life from becoming widely viewed as mere fodder. Indeed, the reason this story is being reported so widely is that it could provide a way around the ethical problem with embryonic stem cell research. (Whether it would or not, I will leave for another day.) Indeed, there is much energy now being applied to find ethical ways to conduct this research on several fronts, which is all to the good.
Back to the reason I used of the word “purported.” As I detailed at length in Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World, ACT is known for issuing press releases about their alleged successes in experiments and publishing them in peer reviewed journals later, if at all. For example, the company claimed to have made the first human cloned embryo, which was reported breathlessly in a cover story in U.S. News and World Report. It turned out that they hadn’t. Similar breathless “behind the scenes at ACT” stories were later published in the Atlantic Monthly and Wired, with similar claims of wild successes never quite being verified.
So, when it comes to news of breakthroughs out of ACT, I hold to Ronald Reagan’s old maxim: Trust but verify.