August 23, 2006

Embryonic Stem Cells: Static Analysis Strikes Out Again

Hatched by Dafydd

Nobody that I've read or heard has a political objection to adult stem-cell (ASC) research, nor even placental stem-cell (PSC) research; many people have a gigantic objection to embryonic stem-cell (ESC) research -- but the only objection I've seen is that, using traditional stem-cell techniques, a five day old embryo is actually killed to get at the hundred or so stem cells it contains.

But once again, the march of technology has demonstrated that it always has the ability to grab the cards off the table and reshuffle them, even right in the middle of the hand:

In an innovative move, a biotech company has found a new way of making stem cells without destroying embryos, touting it as a way to defuse one of the country's fiercest political and ethical debates.

Some opponents of the research said the method still doesn't satisfy their objections and many stem cell scientists and their supporters called it inefficient and politically wrong-headed.

But a spokeswoman for President Bush, who vetoed legislation last month that would have allowed federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, called it a step in the right direction.

And Robert Lanza, an executive with Advanced Cell Technology, which created the new stem cell lines, said: "This will make it far more difficult to oppose this research."

I do object rather strongly to that last sentence; not because it's not true -- it is -- but because Lanza's clear implication is that opponents of ESC aren't really sincere, they're just looking for some excuse to stop research. But I think Macaca just clumsily worded what he meant to say.

So what are the objections from both sides? They're pretty ludicrous and illogical, and I doubt that either represents more than a tiny fraction of each faction. First, the objection of some of those opposed to ESC:

Meanwhile, hard-line opponents of stem cell science argue that the technique solves nothing, because even the single cell removed by the new approach could theoretically grow into a full-fledged human. Some also object over the possibility the procedure could harm the embryo in an unknown way.

The method "raises more ethical questions than it answers," said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

(That second objection, that it "raises more ethical questions than it answers," is such a cowardly shuck that I won't even bother responding.)

The idea that a stem cell "could theoretically grow into a full-fledged human" would be equally true for individual adult and placental stem cells; do these same people oppose research on those, too? And theoretically, if the science of human cloning advances, a stray cell in saliva or a drop of blood (which contains leukocytes) "could theoretically grow into a full-fledged human." Should it be against moral law to spit or bleed?

The silliness factor is that individual cells are already removed from embryos for testing purposes, to check for various genetic disorders; it's called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). In fact, that is where the procedure under discussion arose. During any in vitrio fertilization, doctors can extract a single cell from any (or all) of the developing embryos for testing purposes; this is done about 1,000 times a year anyway, to check for fatal genetic conditions.

What Advanced Cell discovered was that if the doctor allows each of the extracted cells to divide once before testing, and then tests only one of the two cells of each pair, the other can be encouraged to grow into a stem-cell line.

None of the developing embryos is harmed, and no extra embryos are created in order to get stem cells.

Note to forestall a possible objection: the mere fact that a cell divides -- that's what all cells do! -- does not mean that it would suddenly turn into an embryo. You skin cells divide, but they never turn into little fetuses hanging off your body like fruit on a tree. The cell that is removed could divide many times, but it would not spontaneously turn into another embryo.

In theory, such testing could also be done on embryos in the womb; I don't know if we can do that today, but if not, we will be able to fairly soon.

At the moment, if doctors find fatal or severe genetic disorders when they test the other cell in the pair (not the one making a stem-cell line), the usual "treatment" is to destroy the embryo; but that is changing, as more and more conditions can be corrected in utero, leading to a healthy baby. And this ability will only increase, as microsurgery and better gene replacement therapies allow us to, e.g., cure Cystic Fibrosis in the womb before the baby is even born... and without killing any babies.

Does that mean that the same people who object to ESC that does not kill the embryo will also object even to removing a single cell from a high-risk embryo to test for the CF gene, simply because in theory, that single cell might, if implanted in a uterus and given certain stimulation, be coaxed into developing into an embryo?

In any event, extracting an embryonic stem-cell line neither increases the number of embryos nor does it make it any more or less likely that a particular embryo, either in utero or in vitrio, will be aborted. Growing an ESC line from those embryos does not appear to affect their fate in any way.

Religious opposition on the grounds that an extracted cell "could theoretically grow into a full-fledged human" is pure insanity, in my opinion. It's like saying that we mustn't perform organ transplants because there's always a faint chance that the donor, if frozen, could be revived and brought back to life in the future.

The Catholic Church has other objections:

Though the new procedure may satisfy the president's objections to stem cell research, it does not meet the ethical standards of the Roman Catholic church, which opposes both PGD and in vitro fertilization.

If the procedure could be done in utero, that would eliminate the Church's objection on the basis of their condemnation of in vitrio fertilization. That leaves only their objection to PGD itself... but that, then, is nothing more than the objection above to testing on the ludicrous grounds that theoretically, the extracted cell -- which is not an embryo -- could be turned into an embryo.

I suspect that the Catholic objection to PGD is entirely because it's normally done in the in vitrio environment, where a bunch of embryos are created in order to implant one or two, with the rest slated for destruction. If PGD were done on a single embryo in utero, and if that embryo were not subsequently aborted, I think the Church's objection to PGD would fall.

But what about the small fringe on the other side? What's their problem with this new technique? Amazingly, it's even stupider than that above:

Some stem cell researchers complain that the new approach, though it may hold future promise, simply isn't as efficient as their current method of creating stem cells. That procedure involves the destruction of embryos after about five days of development, when they consist of about 100 cells....

President Bush has said that he personally opposes any research that sacrifices embryonic life, even to save an existing person. In August 2001 the president limited federal funding to research on a few dozen stem cell lines that had been created up to that point.

Scientists complain that the decree has severely crippled progress in the field. But recent developments have moved them toward their twin goals of attracting non-federal money for stem cell research and overturning the restrictions.

Several states, including California, New Jersey and Illinois, have set up ways to fund the research. A number of Democratic candidates in this year's congressional elections are focusing on the issue.

The research at Advanced Cell Technology subverts those efforts, [Glenn] McGee said. [McGee is director of the Alden March Bioethics Institute in Albany, N.Y.]

In other words, McGee objects to this procedure because, by making it possible to create ESC lines without destroying embryos, it therefore makes it politically harder to get funding to destroy embryos! The only conclusion I can draw is that for Glenn McGee, the most important goal is killing embryos -- not creating stem cell lines.

This imbroglio illustrates something I have been saying for (literally) decades: the single safest prediction you can make is that in a modern, civilized society, the future will be very different from the past.

This was not always true; in the Middle Ages, for example, it was a good bet that the life of an ordinary person, whether prince, peasant, or merchant, would be almost exactly the same in A.D. 600, A.D. 700, and A.D. 800. Oh, his country's allies may change, and the wars might be against different enemies; but his day to day life would be just the same as in his great8-grandfather's time.

Similarly, in many countries today that are not "modern civilized societies," such as Afghanistan, the life of a peon still hasn't changed much. Maybe they use a tractor instead of a bull to pull the plough... but probably not.

Nor is the prediction simply a tautology; we don't simply define a "modern, civilized society" as one in which the future differs from the past. There is certainly a feedback loop; but there are very identifiable differences in thinking long before there are widespread advances in technology: technology may influence thinking, but it was created by the mind of Man -- and that mind had to be a modern, civilized mind before it could create a different future.

The change in worldview comes first.

Ignoring this reality, acting as if the march -- at times, the sprint -- of technology will not affect the "great moral issues" of the day, ignores the fact that no moral quandry is pure... all must exist within the framework of the contemporary "now." Ignoring the advance of technology when prognosticating the future is the ultimate in "static analysis," and it's a prescription for quick humiliation.

Few remember, but it was an enormous moral quandry when Nicholas Copernicus and Galileo Galilei asserted that the Earth revolved around the sun, rather that the other way 'round. In fact, it even shocked the moral senses when Galileo announced that Jupiter had moons... since if some heavenly bodies could orbit something other than the Earth, than any of them could -- including the Earth itself.

The reaction among some theologians was even more hysterical than the reaction to the well-proven theory of evolution by natural selection is today. But within a relatively short period of time, the telescope was ubiquitous... and that meant that any educated person likely knew somebody who had access to a telescope; and each could see for himself that Jupiter did, indeed have moons, and that our own moon did indeed have impact craters, and so forth. Eventually, evidence reached a tipping point where the Church could no longer deny what everyone could see with his own eyes.

The advance of technology rewrote the moral dilemma: rather than insist that believers must reject the Copernican system, theologians were forced instead to integrate the new scientific knowledge into theology (which of course they managed to do without destroying belief). This time, technology threw the game to the scientists, against (some of) the theologians (the Jesuits never had any real objection to Copernicus or Galileo).

The moral quandry of abortion might be blown wide open by a relatively "evolutionary" development: the abillity to transfer an embryo or even fetus from one woman's womb to another with no more inconvenience than an abortion. My buddy Vic Koman wrote presciently about this in his novel Solomon's Knife. If it were just as easy to donate an unwanted fetus to a couple who could not conceive but desperately wanted a child, the entire abortion question would shift on its axis -- because there would no longer be any argument in favor of abortion, except in the most extraordinary cases.

Want the baby out of your body? Fine; it's gone. Oh, wait, you insist that it be killed? Sorry, but once you choose to give it up, you give up all rights to control what happens to it after it leaves your womb. This time, a likely advance in techology will, in the near future, toss the game to the theologians; the big losers will be secular feminists, who really have no other catechism left besides the legality of abortion.

And now, in real time, we're seeing the moral dilemma of embryonic stem cell research being blown wide open by a company that developed a method of extracting ESCs without damaging the underlying embryo. Is it perfect? not yet. So give it a couple of years; perhaps by then, it will be possible to do the procedure in utero. The point remains: whether in 2006 or 2008, the moral objection goes away... due to a technological advance.

We live in a world where a science-fictional mentality is mandatory; "realism" demands it.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, August 23, 2006, at the time of 4:21 PM

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The following hissed in response by: Mr. Michael

A not so subtle difference... as far as I know, the President isn't banning Embryonic Stem Cell research... he's just not allowing the Government to PAY for it, nor is he allowing the frozen embryos in the Government's possession to be used in that research.

Is the Government the only source of financing for this avenue of research? I'd be shocked if it were... such a promising cure for whatever would surely garner some financial support from elsewhere, no?

But you are correct, when ESCs can be harvested without the death of an embryo all rational moral objection is removed. I don't personally draw the line at the point where one cell is determined to be a future human being... my fear is that the search for a cure for any number of maladies would result in a market for dead embryos, and promote (if in any small way) what I consider to be Murder in order to supply parts to laboratories.

I understand that my opinion is just that, one person's opinion. I recognize that many citizens of the US think I'm way off base on this issue. I don't ask them to stop pursuing this avenue of research, I just ask that I not be forced to pay for it, since I think there is a possibility that it may create a desire in some to encourage an immoral act.

Harvest the Stem Cell without endangering a life, or needing to use an aborted fetus? Feel free to use my taxes. But if it still requires the use of aborted fetuses to to speculative research, then I am still opposed to the use of my taxes to pay for it. Go ahead and do it, but pay for it some other way.

Feel free to reap you profits as you wish.

The above hissed in response by: Mr. Michael [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 23, 2006 6:19 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh

Mr. Michael:

A not so subtle difference... as far as I know, the President isn't banning Embryonic Stem Cell research... he's just not allowing the Government to PAY for it, nor is he allowing the frozen embryos in the Government's possession to be used in that research.

Did I say President Bush had banned the research? I can't find any such statement in my post.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 23, 2006 7:09 PM

The following hissed in response by: Mr. Michael

No Dafydd, you did not... but it is a major facet of the ongoing debate I thought you were joining.

I just don't see the problem if a few people do not like what research you are doing, unless those few people are the ones who can actually stop you. The major focus of the popular debate is not whether doing the research is popular(which is what I read into your post, I'll read it again after getting some more sleep), but whether it is even at all possible. The most common complaint is that the Federal Government in the person of President Bush is keeping the ESC research from happening because of his personal non-scientific opinions. My apologies if I confused your commentary on the new technology with that complaint, and I retract my accidentally off-topic accusation.

The above hissed in response by: Mr. Michael [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 23, 2006 8:29 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh

Mr. Michael:

I was talking about the moral aspect: if the ESC can be extracted without killing an embryo, then I don't see a rationale for saying ESC research violates moral law.

I'm not bothered by the ban on federal funding of new ESC lines and such; federal funding is always a competition, and I'm a lot more irritated that so much more money goes to breast cancer and AIDS research than goes to prostate cancer and allergy research.

I've been reading a book you ought to investigate, if you haven't read it already: the Language of God, by Francis S. Collins. He was the head of the Human Genome project that completely mapped the entire human DNA sequence.

He is a biologist who completely accepts evolution as one of the most well-proven theories of modern science (as do I, though I'm not a scientist)... but he's also a very religious believer (as I am not), a fervent Christian, and he sees no conflict whatsoever between the two.

His book is not really a history of the HG project; it's more a philosophical study of ethics and morality in science, of conflicts between belief and science, and why he thinks it's a false dichotomy. (I heard him on Michael Medved a few days ago and bought his book; I'm about 2/3rds of the way through it.)

Highly recommended.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 23, 2006 11:41 PM

The following hissed in response by: yetanotherjohn

From what I can see, this seems like technology solving a big part of the moral delima. As far as it "could" create a clone, recognize that we aren't far from DNA from any cell being used to create a clone.

I think this turns the moral question back against the left. Instead of, "Do you hold the embryo in higher regard than the people it could help?" (which doesn't really address the question of federal vs private funding, alternative means such as adult stem cells or if the help will actually occur), you can now say "Do you demand the destruction of the potential life of the embryo when the same benefit can be had with out destroying it?". I especially liked the idea of the "matching" stem cells being of use in the future treatment of the person. It would stand to reason to my layman mind that a stem cell line that was as close a genetic match as possible would potentially be of more use in some of the benefits stem cell research claims could be had. Of course if that did turn out to be true, then it would become a rallying cry for the left in a 'have vs have not' way of those who could afford to gather and maintain the personal stem cell line.

As far as the question of potential harm to the embryo, this is like any other FDA procedure. A few million frog egg tests (preferably done so the technician and the reviewers don't know which group had a couple of cells removed and which didn't) should quickly establish a basis for human research that there is no potential harm.

The above hissed in response by: yetanotherjohn [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 24, 2006 8:51 AM

The following hissed in response by: Big D

Yes, harvesting stem cells by not destroying embryos is "not as efficient" as harvesting stem cells by killing the embryos. How very Third Reich of Mr. McGee. Perhaps he would say that harvesting the gold from my teeth would be much more efficient if I were already dead....

I'm a first trimester do what you like kinda guy. I'm also a professional scientist. But I'm appalled at the concept of creating endless lines of human embryos simply to "harvest" the stem cells. Do people realize how very close this is to creating a clone, and harvesting a new liver, kidney or heart for implantation?

I have grave doubts about those who don't at least pause at the concept.

The above hissed in response by: Big D [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 24, 2006 9:40 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh

Big D:

Do people realize how very close this is to creating a clone, and harvesting a new liver, kidney or heart for implantation?

I have grave doubts about those who don't at least pause at the concept.

That moral dilemma too will be solved by more, not less technology: the problem is that you're thinking of creating a clone of the entire person, killing the person, and harvesting the needed organ.

Wouldn't it make more moral sense -- not to mention being more efficient, to satisfy Mr. McGee -- simply to harvest the stem cells (whether from your own self as an embryo or your own self as an adult)... then constrain them to grow into nothing but a liver?

Not a whole clone body; just a clone liver. Or heart, whatever you need. Then there's nothing to kill, nothing to be thrown away: we have a vat containing nothing but a nice-sized human liver that happens to be genetically identical to your own liver, except perhaps for fixing any genetic damage (if that's what caused the problem in the first place). Or a vat of bone marrow.

Or even better: if the clone cells could be implanted and induced to grow in situ, so no major surgery is required. (The cells can be implanted via a needle, much less invasive than a scalpel.)

We could implant muscle tissue that way to replace damaged muscle, or new skin for burn victims -- or even implant neurons, for people with degenerative brain disorders, such as Alzheimer's.

That's where we're headed; the idea that we would grow a complete clone baby then kill it for its liver is a misapprehension, I'm quite sure.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 24, 2006 1:59 PM

The following hissed in response by: Hal

I have two things I'd like to see:

1) Research studies showing (or not) any effects on the child after said genetic studies are done (with the obvions implications for this new application).

2) The research published in a peer-reviewed journal article. Science by press release is not science.

The above hissed in response by: Hal [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 24, 2006 10:06 PM

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