Human Exceptionalism

Good Ethics Makes for Good Science

I am surprised and pleased: The story about the versatility of amniotic fluid stem cells was major front page news in today’s San Francisco Chronicle. The story, byline Carl Hall, also had one of the fairest presentations of the stem cell controversy I have seen in the MSM. Here are a few key points:

“Moral objections to embryonic stem cell research prompted the Bush administration in 2001 to limit federal backing for the work. Scientists are opposing those limits but simultaneously exploring other sources, noting that human embryos for research would be rare even in ideal circumstances. And some of the alternatives may have valuable properties not seen in the embryonic cells.” Will Bush get credit for stimulating such advances? Not a chance, but good for Hall for noting that ethics drove science to places it might not otherwise have gone.

“Even if the federal grant restrictions are erased, there is a limited number of human embryos available to researchers, and their use requires special procedures to ensure informed consent on the part of donors. The embryos are generally leftovers donated by couples undergoing in vitro fertilization. Attempts are under way to produce stem cells in other ways, such as by reprogramming adult cells or cloning. But those experiments also are controversial, and in some cases have yielded disappointing results…

“The amniotic cells didn’t need to be grown on layers of “feeder” cells, as is the case for cell lines taken from embryos. Unlike embryonic stem cells, the fluid-derived cells showed no apparent tendency to develop into cancerous tumors.

That may be because the amniotic cells lack true ‘stemness’–the ability to turn into different cell types, a feature known as ‘pluripotency’–but it’s clearly a plus as far as reducing the cancer risk of any stem cell therapy.

Because the cells are so immature, they lack immune system flags that could start rejection if the cells are ever fashioned into replacement parts for patients. Atala calculated that only about 100,000 specimens would be needed to create a stem cell bank to cover 99 percent of the U.S. population.”

The story also reports the reasons why “the scientists” want to proceed using embryos. But that’s fine. That is part of the story. Hall’s reporting stands out because it presented a balanced and thorough reportage of the news and the underlying controversy. Credit where credit is due.

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