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Political Science on the Hill

A resolution of the stem cell debate is in sight.

Jan 22, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 18 • By YUVAL LEVIN
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"It is scandalous that eight years have passed since we have known about stem cell research and the potential to conquer all known maladies, and federal funds have not been available for the research," Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter told a press conference last week. Specter's comment marks a new peak in the untamed hype of embryonic stem cell research advocates over the past six years--from early claims of imminent cures for Parkinson's and diabetes, through John Edwards's famous assertion that Christopher Reeve would walk again if John Kerry were elected president, to the oft-repeated notion that 110 million Americans are waiting for stem cell therapies, and, now, quite naturally concluding with the promise of universal healing: "All known maladies" will be cured.

The well-known malady of demagoguery, however, continues to plague us, judging by last week's debate on stem cell research in the House of Representatives. On Thursday, the House took up a bill to overturn President Bush's embryonic stem cell funding policy, and for the first time use taxpayer dollars to encourage the destruction of embryos for research. The same bill passed both houses last year, but was rejected by President Bush in the first and so far only veto of his presidency.

Last week's debate offered a familiar mix of tragedy and farce. Genuine and heartfelt stories of suffering and disease, many told by members of Congress on both sides who have clearly wrestled mightily with their consciences, were interspersed with gross misstatements of the facts of stem cell research and the Bush policy, particularly by advocates of looser ethical limits on funding. Tales of a "ban" on the research, of America falling behind, and of cures just around the corner were the order of the day. Behind it all was an implicit sense of urgency, of a desperate need for an infusion of federal dollars right now. Although unfounded in the facts, this air of urgency has been the potent moving force behind the campaign to overturn the Bush policy for nearly six years.

But this iteration of the debate also carried with it a particular sense of incongruity. Just four days before the House took up the issue, the journal Nature Biotechnology published a study showing that cells from amniotic fluid, collected in the course of routine amniocentesis during pregnancy, could have many of the appealing properties of embryonic stem cells, without requiring the destruction of embryos. The study described the cells as "pluripotent," meaning they can be transformed into a wide variety of other cells. "So far, we've been successful with every cell type we've attempted to produce from these stem cells," the study's senior author told the Los Angeles Times.

This is just the latest in a growing number of scientific publications showing that pluripotent cells can be produced without destroying human embryos. Some have described methods of chemically reprogramming adult cells to make them pluripotent and others, like this latest study, involved the discovery of more mature cells with abilities previously thought to exist only at the embryonic stage.

There is more going on here than efforts to make "embryo-like" cells in the lab. What we're seeing is a slow overturning of some key assumptions of cell biology, most notably the belief that the versatility of stem cells is a function of their immaturity and, therefore, that the most versatile cells will naturally be found at the earliest stages of human development: the embryonic stage. Working under this assumption, early efforts to produce pluripotent cells without embryos were described as "turning back the clock." But with every new study, it appears increasingly likely that stem cell versatility can be achieved in a number of ways, and may be inherent in numerous kinds of stem cells at various stages of human development. This means not only that these emerging techniques could offer a consensus solution to the stem cell debate, but also that the entire debate has been grounded in false assumptions.

Stem cell researchers seem increasingly aware of this, and those who want particularly to work with embryonic cells have begun to significantly narrow their case. In an interview with the Associated Press last week, George Daley, a stem cell researcher at Harvard, said of the newly reported amniotic stem cells that "while they are fascinating subjects of study in their own right, they are not a substitute for human embryonic stem cells, which allow scientists to address a host of other interesting questions in early human development."

Interesting questions in early human development may well be worthy of study, but they are a far cry from the promise to conquer all known maladies, and it is hard to imagine that many members of Congress on the fence would find in them an adequate reason to vote for federal funding to support the destruction of human embryos.