Stem Cell Smoke and Mirrors

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Published July 26, 2005

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The debate over federal funding of embryonic stem cell research has heated up again. A recent exchange of views in the Washington Post exposes the smoke and mirrors on both sides.

Dr. Leon Kass, the chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, wrote an op-ed in the Post on July 12 proposing an ostensible win-win solution for both sides.

Rather than destroying viable embryos to conduct research on potential new medical therapies for diseases like cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's, Dr. Kass suggested four alternatives for obtaining embryonic stem cells, including: getting cells from already dead embryos that might have viable cells; extracting cells from living embryos in a nondestructive manner; bioengineering cells from embryo-like tissue; and reprogramming mature body cells into embryonic stem cells.

The downside to this proposal is that all these ideas are unproven — a point seized on by researchers in the opposing camp — including Stanford University's Paul Berg, Harvard Medical School's George Q. Daley and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's S.B. Goldstein (collectively referred to as "Berg") — in a follow-up Washington Post op-ed on July 19.

But while Kass' proposal attempts to sidestep the crux of the controversy — whether or not taxpayers should fund the morally questionable destruction of viable embryos in the name of expensive, speculative medical research — the criticism offered by Berg is downright disingenuous.

"Research on [Kass'] proposed alternatives is already legal and can be funded by existing mechanisms," wrote Berg.

But the same could be said of embryonic stem cell research using viable embryos. There is no law that prohibits embryonic stem cell research; the only question is whether federal funds should be used. Such research could be funded by existing mechanisms — that is, private investment. More on the latter point later.

"While some of [Kass' alternatives] may have some promise, they are unproven," asserted Berg. That certainly is true, but the same could be said of embryonic stem cell research in general. There is not a hint of scientifically derived evidence that embryonic stem cell research will ever produce any medical therapy of any value in any foreseeable time frame whatsoever.

Berg wrote, "there is no scientific evidence that stem cells derived from [dead embryos] would … be safe for human therapies" — an assertion completely overlooking the more encompassing fact that the safety of any therapy derived from embryonic stem cells is quite unknown.

In addition to immune system's potential rejection of implanted embryonic stem cells, there is also the matter of limiting the cells' growth once implanted. Out-of-control embryonic stem cells could very well develop into another kind of out-of-control cell growth — cancer.

Berg opposes Kass' idea of nondestructive extraction of cells from embryos because of "ethical concerns as to possible damage that might be inflicted on the embryo," adding that Kass' alternatives were "in fact, ethically questionable when performed with human tissues."

That assertion's jaw-dropping irony is that the purpose of Berg's article is to advocate the wholesale destruction of viable embryos, the very ethical grounds upon which opponents of embryonic stem cell research base their position.

"It is the president's executive order of Aug. 9, 2001 that is impeding research progress in bringing stem cell therapies to the clinic," wrote Berg.

Once again, Berg tried to pull a fast one.

The president's executive order only limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. It did not prohibit the research itself. In fact, privately funded researchers are free to destroy as many embryos as they like in their pursuit of embryonic stem cell research — but they must conduct such research with private, not public funds. Therein lies the rub.

The reason that embryonic stem cell researchers are agitating for taxpayer money is that their private funding has dried up. Private investors and venture capitalists are not investing in embryonic stem cell research because they perceive it to be a pipe dream unlikely to produce any progress and, hence, investment returns, in any reasonable time frame.

Researchers aspiring to be on the dole and investors whose money is mired in floundering stem cell research firms are looking to federal funds for relief. Such groups already hoodwinked California voters for $3 billion last year with Proposition 71 — a sum that pales in comparison with what Congress could slop in their troughs.

The bottom line is that if embryonic stem cell research had real promise, private investment would be overflowing into biotech companies. But it's not.

"We urge Congress to deal with this matter on its scientific merits without raising a laundry list of other speculative scientific approaches that serve only to confuse the issue," wrote Berg.

Berg is correct that Kass' suggestions for embryonic stem cell research fail to help resolve the debate. On the other hand, embryonic stem cell research and Berg's article are the epitome of scientific speculation and rhetorical confusion, respectively.

Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and CSRwatch.com, is adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and is the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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