The debate on stem cell research just blew up.
May 20, 2005
Now things are going to get interesting, and I am about to use a word I tell all science writing students never to use in a story, “breakthrough.” Fortunately, I can hide it in a quote.
Researchers in South Korea, reporting in Science Magazine, have just turned the debate over stem cell research on its head. They cloned stem cells from injured and sick patients, cells with the exact genetic makeup of the patients. See the word “cloned.” Or, in other words, they produced embryos that are exact genetic clones of the patients from which they extracted the cells. Cell lines usually have been taken from the detritus of fertilization clinics and from aborted fetuses, and we all know how controversial that is. This is a whole different thing. Last year, the group at the Seoul National University derived embryonic stem cells but the technique was very inefficient and generally useless, one cell line in 200 tries. Not all scientists believed them, truth be told. They now report a method that is ten times better, a cell line in fewer than 20 times, and in nine cases with women patients, got one every time they tried. That could mean patients needing stem cell transplants for things like Parkinson’s disease could use clones of themselves, greatly reducing the complexities of rejection and a rebellious immune system. No one has yet expressed any doubts to the veracity of their paper.
The patients ranged in age from 2-56, and interestingly, the younger they were, the easier it was to clone them. The Koreans--a veterinarian, Woo Suk Hwang, and gynecologist Shin Yong Moon--started with oocytes, the cells from which eggs are produced, and replaced their nuclei with nuclei from somatic, or skin cells from different patients. They used a chemical compound to stimulate growth. This was the same technique used to create Dolly, the cloned sheep in 1996. Having no apparent desire to clone a human the way the British cloned Dolly, they only allowed the cloned human embryo to develop for six days, long enough to produce stem cell lines, colonies of cells that will differentiate into all the cells in the body, the universal cell. But that was a cloned human embryo developing in that culture dish. (Technically, they are called blastocysts, hollow balls of cells that divide and develop into embryos.)
Well, you can imagine the fuss this is going to cause. Most researchers, who think stem cells have revolutionary (and so far, unproven) potential for curing diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer's, as well as spinal cord injuries, are hailing the discovery as “spectacular” and a “breakthrough” [there, I did it. Blame Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, quoted in Science.] One cell line was derived from a six-year-old with type 1 diabetes. Another kid has congential hypogammaglobulonemia, a rare genetic mutant disease. It would be possible to see if a therapy can be developed from those cells to treat those disorders. More immediately, it gives scientists a splendid way of studying these disease in the lab.
The Bush administration rules prevent American researchers from using federal funds to create new cell lines and the ones they can use under the rules are too contaminated to be useful. Supporters of the researcher point out that this advance, which one would expect from an American lab, came from South Korea, which has no qualms about funding this work. The researchers had about $200,000 in mostly government money to work with. Some American labs spend that much money coffee in a year.
Folks who oppose the research, or at least object to obtaining the cells from human embryos produced for therapy, already are livid. In order to produce those cell lines, the blastocyst was destroyed and they consider that murder of a human life. What changes the argument, as one MIT professor said, was that the notion this was a clumsy, inefficient way of obtaining these cells, made it possible to talk around the argument. That may have been true on Wednesday, but it is not true today. Now everyone is faced with an astonishingly efficient procedure. The Koreans have made embryo cloning relatively easy, ready for a lab near you.
The Koreans made it clear they have no intention of cloning humans, letting the blastocysts develop further. Reproductive cloning is not our goal," said Woo, the lead researcher. "Reproductive cloning is unsafe and unethical, and so it shouldn't be done in any country." Virtually every scientist in the world agrees with that.
The issue is in front of Congress now, as most members of Congress, like most Americans, favor stem cell research, and there is a brawl about it in Massachusetts. California and several other states, frustrated by the obstruction of the Bush Administration for federal funding, are producing their own funding. Opposition in Congress comes from the right wing of the Republican Party, led by the ethically challenged majority leader, Tom DeLay.
Later Friday, President Bush said he will veto the bill now on its way to passage through Congress in the face of the new process. Every poll shows he is on the losing end of the debate.
The Korean--um, er, breakthrough--could be the tipping point. LAT NYT WP
[illustration swiped from LAT]