The Politics of Stem Cells

Published in The Weekly Standard

STEM CELLS are undifferentiated “master cells” in the body that can develop into differentiated tissues, such as bone, muscle, nerve, or skin. Stem cell research may lead to exponential improvements in the treatment of many terminal and debilitating conditions, from cancer to Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s to diabetes to heart disease. Indeed, break-throughs in stem cell research reported just in the last six months take one’s breath away:

  • Italian scientists have generated muscle tissue using rat stem cells, a discovery that may have significant implications for organ transplant therapy.
  • University of South Florida researchers report that rats genetically engineered to have strokes were injected with rat stem cells that “integrated seamlessly into the surrounding brain tissue, maturing into the type of cell appropriate for that area of the brain.” The potential for stem cell treatments to alleviate stroke symptoms such as slurred speech and dizziness — therapy that would not require surgery — has the potential to dramatically improve the treatment of many neurological diseases.
  • The group of scientists who achieved worldwide fame for cloning Dolly the sheep have successfully created heart tissue using cow stem cells. The experiment demonstrated that stem cells could be transformed into differentiated bodily tissues, offering great impetus to further research.
  • Scientists at Enzo Biochem, Inc., inserted anti-HIV genes into human stem cells. The stem cells survived, grew, and developed into a type of white blood cell that is affected adversely by HIV infection. In the laboratory, these treated cells blocked HIV growth. The next step is human trials, in which stem cell therapy will be attempted using bone marrow transplantation techniques currently effective in the treatment of some cancers.

What will surprise many people is that none of these remarkable achievements relied on the use of stem cells from embryos or the products of abortion. Indeed, all of these experiments involved adult stem cells or undifferentiated stem cells obtained from other non-embryo sources. The rat muscle tissue in the first example was generated using adult rat brain cells. The brain tissue generated in the Florida research was obtained using human stem cells found in umbilical cord blood — material usually discarded after birth and a potentially inexhaustible source of stem cells, since 4 million babies are born in the United States alone each year. Dolly’s creators obtained cow heart tissue by reprogramming adult cow skin tissue back into its primordial stem cell state and thence to cardiac cells. The exciting HIV experiments were conducted using stem cells found in the patients’ own bone marrow, spleen, or blood.

The opportunities for developing successful therapies from stem cells that do not require the destruction of human embryos should be very big news. But where are the headlines? These and other successful experiments have been all but drowned out by breathless stories extolling the miraculous potential of embryonic stem cell research. How many readers are aware, for example, that French doctors recently transformed a heart patient’s own thigh muscle into contracting muscle cells? When these cells were injected into the patient’s damaged heart, they thrived and, in association with bypass surgery, substantially improved the patient’s heartbeat. Such research is now on the fast track, offering great hope for cardiac patients everywhere.

With all of the hype surrounding embryo research, it is important to note that embryo stem cell research — and its first cousin, fetal tissue experiments — may not actually produce the therapeutic benefits its supporters have told us to anticipate. Such worries are not mere speculation. The March 8, 2001, New England Journal of Medicine reported tragic side effects from an experiment involving the insertion of fetal brain cells into the brains of Parkinson’s disease patients. The patients thus treated showed modest if any overall benefits by comparison with a control group who underwent “sham surgeries” without receiving fetal tissue. But over time, some 15 percent of the patients who had received the transplants experienced dramatic over-production of a chemical in the brain that controls movement. The results, in the words of one disheartened researcher, were “utterly devastating,” with the unfortunate patients exhibiting permanent uncontrollable movements: writhing, twisting, head-jerking, arm flailing, and constant chewing. One man was so badly affected he no longer can eat, requiring the insertion of a feeding tube.

While some studies using stem cells culled from embryos to treat Parkinson’s type symptoms in mice have been encouraging, grafts of fetal and embryonic tissue may provoke the body’s immune response, leading to rejection of the tissue and potentially death, since once the cells are injected they cannot be extracted. Even more alarming, a May 1996 Neurology article disclosed a patient’s death caused by an experiment in China in which fetal nerve cells and embryo cells were transplanted into a human Parkinson’s patient. After briefly improving, the patient died unexpectedly. His autopsy showed that the tissue graft had failed to generate new nerve cells to treat his disease as had been hoped. Worse, the man’s death was caused by the unexpected growth of bone, skin, and hair in his brain, material the authors theorized resulted from the transformation of undifferentiated stem cells into non-neural, and therefore deadly, tissues.

Even some of the most enthusiastic boosters of embryo stem cell research see trouble ahead. For example, University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Glenn McGee admitted to Technology Review, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology publication, “The emerging truth in the lab is that pluripotent stem cells are hard to rein in. The potential that they would explode into a cancerous mass after a stem cell transplant might turn out to be the Pandora’s box of stem cell research.” Thus, it could be that adult tissue-specific stem cells are actually safer than their counterparts culled from embryos since, being extracted from mature cells, they may not exhibit the propensity for uncontrolled differentiation.

These concerns arise just as the long-time ban on using federal funds for research that destroys human embryos is under renewed scrutiny. That longstanding ban was effectively reinterpreted out of existence in the waning months of the Clinton administration, and the National Institutes of Health are currently accepting grant proposals for research using embryos originally created for in vitro fertilization but now deemed “in excess of clinical need.” The new administration is taking a long, hard look at the policy; during the campaign, George W. Bush declared his opposition to research that involved destroying human embryos.

All of this raises intriguing questions: Why is federal funding for embryo and fetal research pushed so hard and so publicly — while adult stem cell and other alternative therapies are damned with faint praise? Why do the media applaud fetal stem cell experiments and provide klieg-light coverage of stories promoting the use of embryos, while they mention uncontroversial research not requiring the destruction of human life as an afterthought, if that? Indeed, why do some scientists assert that alternative stem cell research offers but uncertain hope, while they promote embryo and fetal tissue research as the keys to the Promised Land?

I suggest three answers: celebrities, abortion, and eugenics.

In a society that has often denigrated its true heroes, the only people who now stand head above the clouds are figures from the world of entertainment. Increasingly, these celebrities are using their power to promote public policies. They know that their participation can define issues and shape the debate by attracting media coverage, generating fan support, and, most important, stimulating a Pavlovian response in politicians.

Three high-powered celebrities have weighed in recently in the stem cell controversy, each promoting full federal funding of embryo research: the popular Michael J. Fox, stricken at a tragically young age with Parkinson’s disease; the television icon Mary Tyler Moore, a diabetes patient; and actor Christopher Reeve, paralyzed from the neck down in an equestrian accident. With such kiloton star power favoring federal funding of embryo research, promoters of research relying on adult stem cells and other alternative sources, along with those opposed to the destruction of embryos on ethical grounds, have been reduced to background noise or, worse, made to look heartless by denying these celebrities medical breakthroughs they need.

At a deeper level, just as in the nineteenth century many national issues led back to slavery, today numerous public policy disputes lead ultimately to abortion. The controversy over destroying human embryos to obtain their stem cells has brought an outcry from the pro-life movement, which views human life as sacred from the moment of conception. This has led to reflexive support for embryo research by many prochoicers, who have seized on the issue as a way to further their depiction of pro-life forces as caring little about people once they are born. Thus the embryo stem cell debate offers abortion rights advocates a “two-fer”: It furthers their primary political goal of isolating and marginalizing pro-lifers, and it enables them to seize the PR high ground by “compassionately” pressing for research that offers hope against debilitating diseases. To acknowledge the tremendous potential of adult stem cell research would interfere with this political pincer movement.

Finally, in my view, the ultimate purpose of promoting federal funding for embryo experiments over adult stem cell research — particularly among many in the bioethics movement — is to open the door to the eugenic manipulation of the human genome. Once embryos can be exploited for their stem cells to promote human welfare, what is to stop scientists from manipulating embryos to control and direct human evolution — equally for the purpose of improving the human future?

Indeed, some of those who signed a recent open letter to President Bush urging an end to the ban on federal funding for human embryo research were scientists and bioethicists well known as favoring eugenics. For example, James D. Watson, a co-discoverer of the DNA helix, has written that newborns should not be considered “alive” for three days, to permit genetic screening. Newborns who fail to pass genetic muster should be discarded — much as the ancient Romans left unwanted babies outdoors to die of exposure. Another co-author of this letter, Michael West, head of the for-profit research company Advanced Cell Technology, proposes permitting human cloning as a way to obtain genetically matched stem cells for transplants, which might overcome the problem of tissue rejection in embryo stem cell therapy. Not coincidentally, many neo-eugenicists in the bioethics and science communities view cloning as a prime vehicle for directing the eugenic manipulation of human evolution.

All of this will come to a head in the coming weeks and months. Some recent news stories indicate that Health and Human Services secretary Tommy Thompson may be troubled by a federal ban on embryo stem cell research and thus inclined to retain the Clinton administration’s funding policy. But why go down that controversial path, when adult stem cells and alternative sources offer such tremendous hope for treating every malady that research using embryos and fetal tissue seeks to ameliorate? Instead of turning this important field of medical research into another battlefield in America’s never-ending culture war (the first lawsuit has already been filed to prevent federal funding), why not focus our public resources with laser-like intensity on the incredible potential of adult and alternative sources of stem cells?

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.