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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 science.

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 research.

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 cell
experiments for months, getting briefings from the director of the National
Institute of Health, waiting for the time to strike.

Bush continues to attack science and stem cell research – and has used this
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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