President Obama has lifted the ban on embryonic stem cell research enacted by Bush, but I’m left feeling that this intervention came many years too late.

Pledging that his administration will “make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology,” President Obama on Monday lifted the Bush administration’s strict limits on human embryonic stem cell research.

But Mr. Obama went on to say that the majority of Americans “have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research; that the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight the perils can be avoided.”

In making his announcement, Mr. Obama drew a strict line against human cloning, an issue that over the years has become entangled with the debate over human embryonic stem cell research.

As someone who works with stem cells I find this largely an empty, symbolic act, but one that needed to be done anyway. The reality is the damage was done by Bush already, and we’re fortunate that it was only a temporary delay in some of the most important research humans have developed to date.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that in 2006 a revolutionary result was discovered by Japanese scientists led by Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University. What they found was the reset button for mammalian cells, the genes that need to be expressed for a cell to revert to a pluripotent state. We wrote extensively about what results in these cells – induced Pluripotent Stem Cells or iPSC – mean for stem cell research and regenerative medicine overall. Basically, the ability to reprogram the cells of any individual to a totipotent state – one in which the cells may make any cell-type or tissue in the human body. Before some fool suggests this was due to Bush remember it was a Japanese group, the research started long before Bush, and it never would have been possible without ES cells from which they culled the critical genes for the transformation.

So why does it matter that Obama has reversed this policy? Not only are ES cells inferior compared to iPSC for human therapies, but wouldn’t it be easier not to upset the fundamentalists that would equate the value of our lives to that of a ball of undifferentiated cells?


Ultimately this had to be done because symbolism matters. Yes, ES cells will largely be supplanted by iPSC, because the cells will allow us to study a far broader group of individuals – often with specific medical and genetic conditions – and will allow us to bypass the immunologic issues that would prevent easy implementation of ES cell technologies. However, the fact is that the research should never have been restricted on the basis of a religious belief in ensoulment. From a scientific point of view, life does not “begin”. Life is a continuum. Eggs are alive, sperm are alive. The fusion of the two is alive. The pre-implantation embryo is alive, as well as the post-implantation embryo. There is no beginning. No dead state in human reproduction. But certainly you wouldn’t equate the value of human life to that of sperm or eggs, and I don’t see any rational reason why the fusion of the two is that much more special than the two on their own. To come to the conclusion that a conceptus was somehow more human than its constituents, you must impute some mystical relevance to the process of fertilization.

What we had was a religious ban on science that had to be reversed, and a point that had to made that no one religion should be able to veto scientific research because it conflicts with their dogma. There actually is no real need for embryonic stem cell research to be extensively invested unless for some reason the iPSC don’t pan out (entirely possible) or if the turn out to be different from real ES cells in some fundamental way that makes them less valuable for basic research. For instance, I was reading about research into how ES are extremely resistant to retroviral replication, who knows what other clues about human physiology and evolution we can learn from these cells that may or may not be present in iPSC.

I’ve been watching the news a bit and the usual actors are out screaming doom and gloom, human cloning and embryo harvesting etc., despite explicit statements such as these from Obama:

He said that he would ensure that his administration “never opens the door” to cloning for human reproduction, adding, “It is dangerous, profoundly wrong and has no place in our society or any society.”

But one point they’re making, that iPSC have made ES cells irrelevant, is probably correct. We don’t know for sure. Their point that ES cells will lead to some Brave New World scenario – not likely unless iPSC fail to live up to their promise and evil scientists from Klandathu take over the world. I’m not sure why Obama decided to make an issue of this now, maybe this is once again an example of his need to show that he’s running a different administration, one in which no religious group gets to veto science that conflicts with their dogma. While I admire that, he might as well have waited until the end of his term and made his life that much easier.

Comments

  1. #1 Will TS
    March 9, 2009

    There actually is no real need for embryonic stem cell research to be extensively invested unless for some reason the iPSC don’t pan out (entirely possible) or if the turn out to be different from real ES cells in some fundamental way that makes them less valuable for basic research.

    This is exactly why we need investment in embryonic stem cell research. We don’t know the answers to these questions. As you admit, there may be significant differences between iPSC and ES cells. The only way to actually determine that is to do research that compares the two sources of stem cells. Until today, the ability to do that research in the US has been severely limited. You seem to be advocating a halt to learning more about stem cells because what we already know might be good enough.

  2. #2 Comrade PhysioProf
    March 9, 2009

    Not only are ES cells inferior compared to iPSC for human therapies[.]

    But one point they’re making, that iPSC have made ES cells irrelevant, is probably correct.

    The jury is absolutely still out on this question, and it would be scientifically and medically irresponsible in the extreme to drop ESC research at this point.

  3. #3 Paul Murray
    March 9, 2009

    From a scientific point of view, life does not “begin”. Life is a continuum. Eggs are alive, sperm are alive. The fusion of the two is alive.

    You get the same thing from the bible, BTW: Paul clearly states that we were all “in Adam” when he sinned. As to the individual soul: the best indications are that acording to God, that starts when the baby takes its first breath.

    In any case – it’s irrelevant. God is patriarchal: individuals don’t matter – “you and your house shall be saved”. That includes wives, children, slaves and livestock. This concern about individual life and free will is a projection by 21st century western religionists onto the bible of their own world view.

    Meh. Anyone whose God sent a great flood to drown all that liveth and breatheth on the face of the earth has no business criticising anyone.

  4. #4 MarkH
    March 9, 2009

    CPP,
    I would agree that it remains to be seen whether ES cells and iPSC are truly equivalent. Based on the data we have so far this is likely the case, which is why I said the opponents of ES cell research are probably correct on this one point. We need to do more work that this is indeed the case, the research on iPSC is still relatively preliminary.

    If it is the case iPSC will supplant ES cells for study in almost every instance. The technology is less expensive, easier to implement (making ES cells is hard), and will allow one to study a greater variety of genetic backgrounds of cells.

    I think once again you have managed to cherry-pick a few statements out of context to make it appear I was saying something I was not. Congratulations!

    Will TS,
    As I said, these studies need to be done but they could have been done pretty easily under the existing framework. I think in a a matter of a few years we’ll have a pretty good idea of whether this is the case, and we won’t need to do an incredible number of studies to figure this out.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he reversed this. But the damage was already done between 2000 and 2006. We lost 6 lost years. It could have been a lot worse, but this reversal realistically doesn’t do a great deal to advance ES cell research which has switched gears in a huge way towards the iPSC technology. I don’t think it does a lot of good to harp on this issue because I think it was largely settled, fortunately, by a new technology. We can’t ditch it yet, but ES cell research on cells from embryos is no longer at the forefront.

  5. #5 Pierce R. Butler
    March 9, 2009

    Considered from a strictly political perspective, the present moment is one of the best for Obama to reverse Bush’s ignorant and destructive ESC policy.

    Not only does come at a time when the hyperchristians are weak, but, along with the Sebelius nomination for Health & Human Services, it delivers a one-two punch that will clearly demonstrate the “pro-life” tide is ebbing fast.

    Obama knows from the unceasing flood of “most pro-abort president EVAH” propaganda uncorked by the fetus fetishists that his favorite tactic of attempted conciliation would be wasted effort in that quarter. If only he could muster the drive to employ knock-down/roll-over strategies more often…

  6. #6 Boosterz
    March 9, 2009

    Fuck the fundamentalists. If they get offended, good. They need to learn that the world doesn’t revolve around their silly bronze age beliefs.

  7. #7 Bexley
    March 10, 2009

    Even if iPSC are better than ES cells one shouldnt forget the following issue highlighted by a brilliant dailymash article ;)

    http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/science-%26-technology/scientists-to-continue-embryo-stem%11cell-research-purely-to-annoy-christians-200903031615/

  8. #8 Morgan
    March 10, 2009

    He said that he would ensure that his administration “never opens the door” to cloning for human reproduction, adding, “It is dangerous, profoundly wrong and has no place in our society or any society.”

    This just sounds like ignorant fear. Cloning for reproduction seems the least objectionable use of the technology, compared to, say, cloning for spare parts. Why is it profoundly young to artificially produce a child who happens to be a genetic twin to an existing adult?

  9. #9 Anonymous
    March 10, 2009

    What a hypocritical blog post. Bush uses ethics to guide science by prohibiting certain research and technology avenues and you criticize him for waging religious war on science. Obama uses ethics to guide science by prohibiting certain research and technology avenues and you applaud him for putting science in the proper place. Both Bush and Obama relegate science to the same place. For both, ethics trumps science.

  10. #10 Bexley
    March 10, 2009

    “This just sounds like ignorant fear. Cloning for reproduction seems the least objectionable use of the technology, compared to, say, cloning for spare parts. Why is it profoundly young to artificially produce a child who happens to be a genetic twin to an existing adult?”

    Am a physics person so may be wrong here. Isnt there uncertainty over what happens with telomeres if you clone somebody?

    If you create a clone presumably the clone’s telomeres are shorter than in the donor. I thought some people hypothesised that this might lead to problems with premature aging.

    If there is uncertainty here (again Im a physics person so I dont know what the current state of play is) I’d suggest it might pose ethical problems.

  11. #11 Morgan
    March 10, 2009

    Bexley, obviously there are ethical issues with using a method of artificial reproduction prone to giving children so conceived health problems, but that’s a question of new technology and the limitations thereon. Obama’s comment sounds directed at the whole idea of reproducing via cloning in general, not “only so long as there are problems”, as well as offering no suggestion that such problems call for research to solve rather than for the area to be forsworn.

  12. #12 MarkH
    March 10, 2009

    I’m actually not bothered by cloning, other than the high probability of creating defective humans while the kinks in the tech are worked out. That is the part I believe to be unethical.

    And Anon, Bush did not use ethics to guide science. He used religion. There is a big difference.

  13. #13 rjb
    March 10, 2009

    @ anonymous

    Bush did not use “ethics”. He used religion to ban ESC research. Religion does not equal ethics. Embryos are created and destroyed all the time in IVF. So, if it is acceptable there, why isn’t it acceptable for research?

  14. #14 Anonymous
    March 10, 2009

    Morgan – take your point about Obama’s tone.

    Seperate point – should scientists bother trying to perfect human cloning so that it doesn’t lead to medical problems for the clone? I’m not sure what we’d get out of it practically. As a pure research question is it interesting?

    Any thoughts?

  15. #15 Morgan
    March 10, 2009

    I don’t really know; I don’t know enough biology to say whether it’s an “interesting” or fruitful research problem. The obvious applications of it are either far-flung and fanciful (clone me a new body so I can transfer my consciousness to it when this one wears out), ethically as thorny as embryonic stem cells (grow me an anencephalic clone to provide perfect-match donor organs) (and of course, how thorny this is depends on the person), or simply fallacious (if I clone my beloved grandfather, I’m resurrecting him!). I don’t see any particular reason to pursue cloning for reproduction, but I don’t think it’s evil.

  16. #16 Ellis
    March 11, 2009

    “I’m not sure why Obama decided to make an issue of this now, maybe this is once again an example of his need to show that he’s running a different administration, one in which no religious group gets to veto science that conflicts with their dogma. While I admire that, he might as well have waited until the end of his term and made his life that much easier”
    I think that Obama sees the damage to the scientific community caused by the decisions of the bush administration. He is not trying to reverse the actual damaged rather prevent any of those decisions from causing any further damage.
    “What a hypocritical blog post. Bush uses ethics to guide science by prohibiting certain research and technology avenues and you criticize him for waging religious war on science. Obama uses ethics to guide science by prohibiting certain research and technology avenues and you applaud him for putting science in the proper place. Both Bush and Obama relegate science to the same place. For both, ethics trumps science. ”
    Yes. Obama and Bush both believe that ethics should be considered when conducting research, as do scientists. However, Bush’s prohibitions on scientific research and conduct were based in religious ideology. Your last statement “ethics trumps science”, are you suggesting that science, in and of itself, is unethical?

  17. #17 Rogue Epidemiologist
    March 11, 2009

    I get what the religious stem cell opponents are saying, and I think we could spin the argument. Sure, the embryos would be harvested, but instead of looking at it like a regular elective abortion, those embryos are actually being given the chance to LIVE! Not just as one person, but as many people, helping to save their lives, too.

    Just a thought. I was really hypoglycemic when I came up with it.

  18. #18 trrll
    March 14, 2009

    I don’t think that anybody in science doubts that ES cell research will ultimately be a transient phase in the development of stem cell technologies. If the current IPSC method doesn’t work right, it will be improved. Nevertheless ES cells are required to facilitate development of stem cell science, even if primarily as a standard for comparison.

    However, it is fundamentally dishonest to pose the ES cell debate as one over the moral status of human embryos. That social and moral decision was made years ago, by the decision to permit in vitro fertilization: Human embryos are discardable medical waste.

    If Bush truly believed that embryos are human beings who are entitled to protection, then the principled stand to take would have been to mount a campaign to ban in vitro fertilization. He didn’t do that; instead, he chose to obstruct the science, which enabled him to score points with the religious extremists in his political base, despite the fact that it did not protect any embryos whatsoever–but ES cell science has a smaller political constituency than i.v. fertilization, which is what actually drives the production and ultimate destruction of these embryos.

  19. #19 trrll
    March 14, 2009

    Am a physics person so may be wrong here. Isnt there uncertainty over what happens with telomeres if you clone somebody?

    The reason why cloning is so unreliable is probably the failure to completely reprogram the DNA to an embryonic state. The problem is not just telomeres, there are also epigenetic modifications such as DNA methylation and acetylation/deacetylation of histones.

    But as a reason for opposing human cloning, it is entirely a technical problem. Eventually these kinks will be worked out, and safety of human cloning will be comparable to other accepted procedures, so what then?

    I also don’t see a real moral problem with human cloning per se. Clones are just identical twins, and those have been around throughout human history without disastrous consequences. Questions like, “Is it OK to use clones as a source of replacement organs” can most simply be resolved by reference to the moral and legal status of identical twins. Can you use your twin as a source of organs for transplant? Only if s/he freely agrees to give them to you. Next question.

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!