Sunday, May 29, 2005

Stem Cell Debate

I was basically just hoping to take it easy this fine Sunday evening, but after watching a little news I just felt the need to write a little something about the whole stem cell debates going on in the States.

No matter which side of the embryonic stem cells research debate you come down on you have to admit that the PR from the pro research side, not necessarily from the researchers themselves but definitely with their help, is very well organized. If you listen to all the hype, President Bush is single handedly stopping science from curing everything from diabetes to cancer to heart disease. I just hate the politicizing of this issue from people who have little or no understanding of what this actually means. For far too many this issue just represents the newest most popular bandwagon to jump onto.

Let me state outright that I do not oppose the idea of embryonic stem cell research. In this case I just happen to agree with President Bush's policy that the US Federal government should not be in the business of funding unproven (yeah I said it) scientific research methods, with very strong moral underpinnings. For most cases where spending is entirely optional, and a large portion of the population opposes the expenditure for whatever reason, then if at all possible the federal government should stay out of it. That's what private firms are for. The people that want to spend their money towards that purpose are free to do so, why should those that oppose be forced to pay part of the bill.

Here are just some of the facts about stem cell research in the United States to keep in mind.
  1. There are approximately 22 embryonic stem cell lines that are ok'd for federal funding.
  2. The federal government research programs are just that, federal research programs. No one is stopping the firms, who will of course reap all the financial benefits from any 'cures' developed, from spending their own money in this field.
  3. There is no federal agency stopping research facilities from petitioning each state government to provide public funding with fewer restrictions, as California has already done.
  4. It is allowable for labs to both use the federally approved cell lines as well as non-approved lines as long as they keep the costs for each line of research separated. While not the easiest thing to do, it does allow for the option to receive federal monies while still working on new cell lines.
  5. As of today, no concrete treatments have been created using embryonic stem cells while the less favored adult stem cells (of which there is no cell line restrictions) have been used for several real world treatments; most notably for diabetes.
The basics fact is that while scientists and politicians love to state that embryonic stem cells are the cure all of the coming century, the only real proof of a stem cells ability to create functioning organs or treat disease has come from the adult stem cell research. A fact most advocates for embryonic research seem just to happy to ignore. And while Bush does place restrictions on embryonic cell research, that only applies to federally funded labs. Another fact many on the pro-research side like to leave out.

Once again, since it is not stated enough: as long as they are not in violation of other US laws (ex. the US ban on human cloning) there is nothing restricting private firms from paying for their own embryonic stem cell research without these US Federal government restrictions.

I was just sick and tired of hearing all the claims this last week as Congress prepares to send a bill to the White House expanding the US's federal research programs. The President has already stated he will veto any bill opening up the way for the creation of new embryo lines on the grounds that they open up a slippery slope that, among other things, could lead to the creation of embryos purely for research sake.

Another group that is little talked about are the many scientist that have actually come out to say that stem cells derived from embryos may be too difficult to work with for the same reason so many see such potential in them, their ability to duplicate any type of cell. Whereas adult stem cells are limited in which types of cells they can reproduce, thereby making it easier to cause them to become those types of cells.

Just take the example of a windmill. If you could harness the 100+ MPH winds of a tornado and reproduce one at will, it may turn out to be a very cost effective solution to the worlds energy problems. But, as most would agree, that's near impossible. Instead, most researchers look at the fact that it's easier to harness a known directional wind rather than a tornado, and design their windmills to take advantage of that. Translated to the world of stem cells, embryonic cells are like the tornado, massive potential but due to a lack of means to control the outcome, of limited use. Adult stem cells on the other hand, are that nice northernly wind. While not as sexy as working in a tornado, ultimately of more benefit. Sure things may change in the future and we may learn to control tornados., but is it truly the federal governments jobs to blaze that trail. I think they have a lot of other things that have a much better ROI that they can spend taxpayers money on.

Of course, that's just my opinion.
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Some links of interest:

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