The Magazine

The Great Stem Cell Hoax

The research promises results about a half century from now.

Aug 20, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 46 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

SANITY AND PRUDENCE combined to produce a great victory on July 31 when the House of Representatives overwhelmingly defeated—the margin was over 100 votes—the legalization of early human embryonic cloning. But the fight is not over. The Senate needs to act as well.

Before it does, however, it is worth preparing oneself for the gale-force hype that Senate advocates will unleash in defense of the indefensible. One has only to look at the debate on the floor of the House to see the extraordinary lengths to which the biotech industry and its allies in Congress will go to sell the deliberate creation of embryo factories for the sole purpose of exploiting and then destroying them.

While the media have been snooping under Gary Condit’s bed, they have missed the real scandal of the season, the unconscionable deployment of fantasy and false hopes by advocates of "therapeutic" cloning for the production of stem cells. The basic premise—cure of the incurable—was stated by a Newsweek cover a month ago: "There’s Hope for Alzheimer’s, Heart Disease, Parkinson’s and Diabetes. But Will Bush Cut Off the Money?" The theme has been echoed and reechoed nowhere more than in Congress.

The cosponsor of a permissive cloning bill, Peter Deutsch (D-FL), said this about the opposing bill totally banning cloning: "No one knows who is going to get Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or cancer. . . . What this legislation would do would be to stop the research . . . so that you could survive, so that someone who is a quadriplegic could walk, so that someone who has Alzheimer’s . . ." He trailed away. You get the drift. The lion will lie down with the lamb.

Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), with characteristic subtlety: "Mr. Speaker, the National Institutes of Health and Science hold the biblical power of a cure for us."

Zoe Lofgren (D-CA): "If your religious beliefs will not let you accept a cure for your child’s cancer, so be it. But do not expect the rest of America to let their loved ones suffer without cure."

Jerrold Nadler (D-NY): "We must not say to millions of sick or injured human beings, ‘go ahead and die, stay paralyzed, because we believe the blastocyst, the clump of cells, is more important than you are.’ . . . It is a sentence of death to millions of Americans."

Anna Eshoo (D-CA): "As we stand on the brink of finding the cures to diseases that have plagued so many millions of Americans, unfortunately, the Congress today in my view is on the brink of prohibiting this critical research."

Eshoo gets the prize. The brink? The claim that cloning, and the stem cells it might produce, is on the verge of bringing a cure to your sick father with Alzheimer’s or your debilitated mother with Parkinson’s is a scandal. It is a cruel deception perpetrated by cynical scientists and ignorant politicians. Its purpose is clear: to exploit the desperation of the sick to garner political support for ethically problematic biotechnology.

The brink? Cloning animals, let alone humans, is so imperfect and difficult that it took 277 attempts before Dolly the sheep was cloned. Scientists estimate that the overall failure rate for cloning farm animals is 95 percent or greater. New experiments with cloned mice have shown gross deformities. And here is the worst part. We have no idea why. We understand little about how reprogrammed genes work. Scientists don’t even know how to screen with any test for epigenetic abnormality.

In other words: Even if you could grow embryonic stem cells out of grandma’s skin cells, we have no idea yet how to regulate and control these cells in a way to effect a cure. Just growing them in tissue culture is difficult enough. Then you have to tweak them to make precisely the kind of cells grandma needs. Then you have to inject them and hope to God that you don’t kill her.

We have already had one such experience, a human stem cell experiment in China. Embryonic stem cells were injected into a suffering Parkinson’s patient. The results were horrific. Because we don’t yet know how to control stem cells, they grew wildly and developed into one of the most primitive and terrifying cancers, a "teratoma." When finally autopsied—the cure killed the poor soul—they found at the brain site of the injection a tumor full of hair, bone and skin.

Let’s have a little honesty in both the cloning and stem cell debates. Stem cell research does hold promise for clinical cures in the far future. But right now we’re at the stage of basic science: We don’t understand how these cells work, and we don’t know how to control them. Because their power is so extraordinary, they are very dangerous. Elementary considerations of safety make the prospect of real clinical application distant.

Stem cells are the cure of the mid 21st century. Stem cell research deserves support because the basic research needs to be done and we might as well get started now. But the cure is for future generations. The cynical appeal to curing grandma is raw exploitation of misery. Nothing of the sort is about to happen. Those who claim it ought to be ashamed.

But rather than exhibit shame, the scientific community is rallying—in the name of retaining their autonomy from the ignorant dictates of lay society—to sugarcoat the news. Most notorious is the case of the research article on embryonic stem cells published in July in the journal Science, one of the most respected scientific publications in the world. The research showed that embryonic stem cells of mice are genetically unstable. Yes, you can make them grow over and over again, but we don’t know how or why some genes are turned on and off. You can make a million copies of a stem cell. They may be genetically identical. But if different genes are turned on in the various cells, the results—the properties of the tissue or organism they develop into—can be wildly different.

Now the really bad news. The authors of that study initially had a sentence at the end of the paper stating the obvious conclusion that this research might put in question the clinical applicability of stem cell research.

But that cannot be said publicly. In a highly unusual move, the authors withdrew the phrase that the genetic instability of stem cells "might limit their use in clinical applications" just a few days before publication. They instead emphasized that this mouse study ought not hold back stem cell research.

This change in text represents a corruption of science that mirrors the corruption of language in the congressional debate. It is corrupting because this study might have helped to undermine the extravagant claims made by stem cell advocates that a cure for Parkinson’s or spinal cord injury or Alzheimer’s is in the laboratory and just around the corner, if only those right-wing, antiabortion nuts would let it go forward.

In reviewing a book on Parkinson’s disease, Nina King, associate editor of Washington Post Book World, noted that when she was diagnosed with the disease 15 years ago, she was told that a cure was 5 or 10 years away. She has heard that ever since. A cure in 5 to 10 years "is like a mirage on the horizon, glowing with promise but ever receding."

The other scandalous myth being perpetrated, besides imminence, is inevitability. It goes like this:

The march of science will go on. Legislators can try to contain the growth of knowledge, but it is futile. Somebody somewhere will work on stem cells or cloning. So let us at least take it out of the closet and keep it in the public eye.

What this mantra does not take into account is the radical effect a ban on anything in science has on the quality and quantity of people working on it. Cloning has not even been banned, but because it is societally disapproved of, it is generally shunned by serious researchers. Look at the cloning conference called by the National Academy of Sciences on August 7 in Washington. A vast majority of researchers there view with horror the cloning of a human child—except for three researchers who declared their determination to do it. Three in the whole world.

One looked less stable than the other. Dr. Boisselier recently closed her "Clonaid" laboratory in the United States and is supposedly opening one offshore. When she spoke to the gathered about the right to do what one wants with one’s genes, she did not inspire great confidence, possibly because she is a member of the Raelian sect, a cult founded by a former French race car driver after being visited by aliens in 1973. Seeing how marginalized cloning researchers are today even before a legal ban, one can imagine how much more marginalized they will be after one.

A ban works by robbing outlawed research of the best and the brightest. They are not going to devote their lives to a career where they must work in the shadows, ostracized, and under threat of arrest. That ought to encourage legislators to believe that society can indeed influence the direction of science.

Yes, in the very long run some science will break through. But one must not underestimate the efficacy of political restraint. If you can restrain for decades something that promises a cure, imagine how many other, less morally repulsive, substitute cures will present themselves in the meantime. You cannot stop evil science, but you can delay it, and thus possibly supplant it.

That is why the House action banning all cloning was so important. The Senate must demonstrate its seriousness, too. Now that the president has permitted only research from existing stem cell lines, the Democratic Senate is sure to try to loosen that standard and permit stem cell research from discarded fertility clinic embryos as well. But until Congress has demonstrated its seriousness about preventing the creation of embryo factories for exploitation by banning cloning completely, it cannot be trusted on any question regarding human manufacture.

Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard.