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The Stem Cell Breakthrough and
the Attacks On Science
The week of Nov. 20, two teams of researchers -- one led by Kyoto
University's Shinya Yamanaka, the other by the University of
Wisconsin's Junying Yu reported that they had turned human skin cells
into pluripotent stem cells – cells which appear to behave in tests so
far the same as embryonic stem cells. Their technique involved using a
virus to add four new genes to the skin cells.
If confirmed, this discovery would indeed be a major breakthrough in
the already explosively growing science of stem cell research. Many
fascinating and important questions are being probed in this field,
expanding our understanding of embryonic development, differentiation
and aging from the level of cells to tissues to individuals. This field
is pushing forward understanding of how many diseases develop – and
could be combated. It is also advancing the understanding of how human
regeneration happens with major therapeutic promise.
The scientific approach to this news would (and will) be for scientists
worldwide to reproduce and check these results and evaluate the
efficacy and accuracy of this technique in the context of the many
hundreds and thousands of experiments in which embryonic stem cells
have been used. Many new questions will be asked and hopefully
answered. Do these cells truly behave identically to undifferentiated
embryonic stem cells in all these situations? In what ways are they
still different and what will that teach us about the process of
embryonic stem cell specialization? Can the issue of cancer developing
due to the use so far of cancer causing genes be overcome? While it is
still very early and the outcome is far from clear, the most likely
scientific outcome, based on the truth discovered through scientific
methods will most likely be that this technique will find its place
among other stem cell techniques. And it may lead to still more
dramatic breakthroughs too.
In other words, this new breakthrough is occurring in the context of
and could not have happened without embryonic stem cell research.
The importance of stem cell research is not confined to “what stem
cells can do” in a simply utilitarian sense. Potential cures,
therapies, etc. are important but important as they are, along with the
question of “what stem cells can do” is the equally critical question
of “what stem cells can help us learn”. There are whole new scientific
vistas opening up – and it is very correct and an essential part of
what science is and of what makes us human to wonder, marvel and strive
to learn more about all this. And in turn, this can lead to exciting
new discoveries in unforeseen areas including new applications to
medicine, etc. As we see it, defending this is at the core of defending
But is THIS the “news” that the world (especially in the U.S.) has
heard about this story? No – the media has been filled with stories
that imply that this discovery could lead to the “end of embryonic stem
cell research” – and that we should all be happy about that. Or if not,
we should shut up because as an article in the NY Times put it
“scientists don't like controversy”. This is a major attack on science
– and it needs to be exposed.
Bush and the Christian Fundamentalist Right have consistently attacked
stem cell science, doing everything they can to stop it and failing
that to constrict and constrain it. And beyond the issue of stem cell
science they have been working to establish a new and frightening norm
– that scientific research must be vetted through the most extreme
Christian Fundamentalist mores.
This extremism has alienated the vast majority of people in this
country and the world. Even conservative Republicans like Nancy Reagan,
Arlen Spector and lately Orrin Hatch who recently said, “People who are
pro-life are also pro-life for existing life” oppose Bush. But Bush
“stays the course” twice vetoing bills to restore funding for stem cell
The climate in the U.S. is so bad that some key researchers from the
National Cancer Institute have moved to Singapore where they can do
their research with governmental support, not suppression. There are
still over 400,000 unused - and likely to be thrown away - frozen
embryos from in-vitro fertilization clinics while U.S. researchers
struggle with the few tainted existing stem cell lines they are
permitted to use.
It is reported that Bush and his aides have been tracking these skin
experiments for months, getting briefings from the director of the
Institute of Health, waiting for the time to strike.
Bush continues to attack science and stem cell research – and has used
discovery to make the ludicrous claim that the suppression of stem cell
research has led to this recent breakthrough. Karl Zinsmeister, a
policy advisor to Bush, laid claim to driving the experiment, saying,
“This is very much in accord with the president’s vision from the
get-go”. It is way off the key point to argue about whether or not Bush
deserves the “credit” for this scientific breakthrough. This claim
should be viewed as akin to southern slaveholders claiming credit for
the development of blues music.
At the core of this attack on science, an intense effort is being made
to put over the pseudo-argument that since these pluripotent skin cells
are “the same” as embryonic stem cells and since there's supposedly “a
stigma” involved in embryonic stem cells, scientists should just drop
them and “use” the skin cells instead because after all who wants
controversy. And unfortunately many who should know better who are
normally supporters of science have joined in pushing this viewpoint.
If this thinking and approach is not sharply exposed, challenged and
defeated - and worse if it is followed and allowed to set the terms of
public debate and decisions on scientific research, then whatever
peoples' intentions it would amount to complicity with the politics of
letting extremist Christian Fundamentalist mores dictate the direction
of crucial scientific research. It would be extremely hurtful to
science, to the scientific method and to the spirit of seeking the
truth about the world, nature and society and reporting it, even when
it is inconvenient to those in power.
If anyone's hope is to defuse these kinds of culture wars and their
impact on science by arguing for “the end of embryonic stem cell
research” then they are terribly wrong. Conciliating to or cooperating
with Bush and the Christian Fundamentalist right in the hope that
issues like these will quiet down and go away is a dangerously
misguided path and ends up only strengthening their vicious hand.
We need instead to act in all the ways we can to expose this attack and
help the public see this in the context of the continuing attacks on
science that are not letting up and will not go away without a
determined battle in society to defend science. And we also need to
help people see that this is the case no matter what comes after Bush.
Through this affair and the way it is being framed broadly to the
public, those whose program is anti-science to the core are further
fettering science. At issue here is not just what will happen to stem
cell research but what is happening to science.
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