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
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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.