The meaning of life

StemCell2Yesterday media outlets announced the news of a breakthrough in stem-cell research. The details were published in the prestigious journals Science and Cell (PDF).

Translating the research for readers of mainstream media has challenged reporters all over the globe. Two different teams of scientists have figured out a means to obtain pluripotent stem cells without creating — or destroying — an embryo. In fact, no human reproductive material was used at all, including eggs. Now, most pluripotent stem cells are known as embryonic stem cells, meaning they come from an embryo. The new technology, called Direct Cell Reprogramming or Induced Pluripotent State, takes adult cells and regenerates them back to the pluripotent state. It’s quite similar to embryonic stem cells, but they are not embryonic stem cells.

So that’s my first note — headlines such as these two from National Public Radio are problematic:

Skin Cells Can Become Embryonic Stem Cells

Scientists Create Embryonic Stem Cells from Skin

On the other hand, many reporters did a great job of explaining and translating the science and its ethical impact. Here, for example, is Gina Kolata in The New York Times:

Two teams of scientists reported yesterday that they had turned human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells without having to make or destroy an embryo — a feat that could quell the ethical debate troubling the field.

All they had to do, the scientists said, was add four genes. The genes reprogrammed the chromosomes of the skin cells, making the cells into blank slates that should be able to turn into any of the 220 cell types of the human body, be it heart, brain, blood or bone. Until now, the only way to get such human universal cells was to pluck them from a human embryo several days after fertilization, destroying the embryo in the process.

The need to destroy embryos has made stem cell research one of the most divisive issues in American politics, pitting President Bush against prominent Republicans like Nancy Reagan, and patient advocates who hoped that stem cells could cure diseases like Alzheimer’s. The new studies could defuse the issue as a presidential election nears.

The reprogrammed skin cells may yet prove to have subtle differences from embryonic stem cells that come directly from human embryos, and the new method includes potentially risky steps, like introducing a cancer gene. But stem cell researchers say they are confident that it will not take long to perfect the method and that today’s drawbacks will prove to be temporary.

Researchers and ethicists not involved in the findings say the work, conducted by independent teams from Japan and Wisconsin, should reshape the stem cell field. At some time in the near future, they said, today’s debate over whether it is morally acceptable to create and destroy human embryos to obtain stem cells should be moot.

“Everyone was waiting for this day to come,” said the Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. “You should have a solution here that will address the moral objections that have been percolating for years,” he added.

Good thing Missouri enshrined embryonic destruction into its constitution! Thinking back to that election battle, one of the criticisms I had was that the mainstream media kept referring to supporters of the Missouri amendment as “favoring stem-cell research.” Of course, everyone, more or less, favors stem-cell research. Stem cells have been considered very exciting avenues for research because of their remarkable potential to develop into different cell types in the body (muscle cell, brain cell, skin cell). Some stem cells come from adults while other stem cells come from embryos. Each type has various advantages and disadvantages. Some people don’t think advances in science should come by destroying embryos. Others think that destroying embryos is a price you have to pay for the possibility of developing cures to diseases.

StemCellWhat’s neat about the recent news is the potential improvements on the most promising line of research — without destroying embryos or requiring women to donate or sell their eggs.

Well, all of a sudden, the media seem to have figured out this distinction between stem-cell research and embryonic stem-cell research. Obviously the whole hook of the story was that pluripotent stem cells are being obtained without killing embryos. So reporters had to explain the distinction between embryo-destroying research and non-embryo-destroying research. But what a shame that they hadn’t been doing a better job of this earlier.

Anyway, there are many stories out there about this recent advance. In addition to a straight news story, The Washington Post explored the political significance of the finding:

Still, even skeptics of the president’s approach acknowledged that the new findings could make it more difficult to keep up the political momentum for embryo research, even if scientists say it is too early to abandon it. Most immediately, some said, it could hurt the effort to override Bush’s June veto of a bill that would have loosened the rules on federal funding.

The Los Angeles Times had a thorough article with an interesting comment thread. Kolata had a follow-up story for the Times about one of the scientists who broke the latest discovery, James Thomson. He was the same scientist who touched off debate on embryonic stem-cell research in 1998 when he took stem cells from embryos:

The fact is, Dr. Thomson said in an interview, he had ethical concerns about embryonic research from the outset, even though he knew that such research offered insights into human development and the potential for powerful new treatments for disease.

“If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough,” he said. “I thought long and hard about whether I would do it.”

Interesting. USA TODAY reported on the ethical concerns remaining, something religion reporter Gary Stern highlighted on his blog. Finally, if you are looking for an excellent analysis of the medical and political significance, I recommend (my fellow Phillips Fellow) Ryan Anderson’s piece in The Weekly Standard.

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  • Jerry

    This is a very good development. But it does leave intact the issue of what to do with all the embryos “left over” from IVF so the ethical and religious issue is still there even if embryonic stem cell research disappeared tomorrow.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It will be interesting to see how much long-term, in depth follow-up is given this story such as was bestowed on the alleged promise of advances in research that could be made by denigrating the value of individual human life at its conception. I doubt it.
    It will also be interesting to see if the fact ANOTHER Episcopal bishop has “swum the Tiber” (Bishop Lipscomb of Florida) gets anywhere near the coverage “Women-Priests” concocted ceremonies pretending to ordain some women to the Catholic priesthood got. It seemed to be everywhere in the MSM.
    So far I’ve seen not a word about Bishop Lipscomb in the MSM. Yet this is a more honest story and at a higher level than activist play-acting. I wonder if there will be as many full color front-page pictures of him published as I saw of the phony women priests???? And if the MSM finally kicks in–will the stories have the positive cheer-leading spin the women-priests stories had??????

  • Martha

    It’s very good, but those who were pushing for research using embryos will just come up with another excuse why we should do it.

    The carrot dangled before people of cures, with the stick of “we’ll fall behind other (less scrupulous) countries!” was always that – to justify the vast amounts of funding needed, a tangible and quick return was the quid pro quo, hence the promises of “we’ll cure Alzheimers/diabetes/spinal cord injuries in five years if you let us do this and pay the millions upon millions!”

    I’m pessimistic about us as a species: a lot of the push for reseach using embryos as spare parts was down to good old human “oooh – what does *this* button do?” curiosity, and the rubes had to be pacified with sweet words of ‘you will always be healthy and young if you only drink our marvellous medicinal brew!’

    So, good for these people, but after it quietens down, wait for the push on “well, embryonic cells still offer the best avenue to cure aging” or whatever else sounds promising.

    My scepticism arises out of exactly the query expressed by Jerry: “what to do with all the embryos “left over” from IVF”.

    Remember back when IVF was getting off the ground, and the mean ol’ Catholic Church said “No way”? Remember the sob-stories of “but how can you be so cruel to those who only want a baby”? And the answer to the awkward question of “Yes, but what happens to spare embryos?” was “But there will be no spare embryos! (1) We will use them all in the process (2) do you really think people who have put themselves through the expense, effort and pain of IVF are going to leave their Precious Little Treasures and the Miraculous Gift of Life sitting in a freezer? They will have healthy babies, silly!”

    Hmmm – funny how the ‘precious miraculous gift of life’ has now become ‘trash that’s only going to be tossed anyway so we might as well use it for something useful’, isn’t it?

    When it suited the researchers to get public opinion on their side, frozen embryos were precious little babies that would make mommies and daddies happy and how could we be so cruel and mean to deny this natural desire to have a family, you closed-minded religious bigot?. Now it suits them to get public opinion on side for research, frozen embryos are only clumps of cells that will be flushed away like rubbish and don’t be stupid, that’s not a baby, not even close, you closed-minded religious bigot.

  • William

    I wouldn’t recommend Ryan Anderson’s opinion piece as a good analysis. From the very first line, he is wrong: “The stem cell wars are over.”

    When James Thomson claims “it’s not the time to abandon embryonic stem cell research” is he sounding the end of the stem cell wars? (quote from Bioethics.net)

    Gary Stern, who you also recommend, was much more realistic (and dare I say truthful?): “contrary to the contention in today’s news reports, the new achievement may not mark the end of embryonic stem cell research.”

    Also, should Bush and the pro-life movement be vindicated in, as Thomson claims, “set[ting] the field back four or five years”? Or in the fact that these induced pluripotent stem cells are only possible because of prior (and ongoing) research on embryonic stem cells?

    Anderson’s piece is good if the goal is to declare the war over (not unlike Ginsberg’s “I’m going to shout ‘the war is over’ as loud as I can”) but the issues are less settled and more complex.

    For a more realistic analysis, I would recommend The Next Stage in the Stem Cell Debate Begins! by Matthew Nisbet.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Well, Ronald Bailey over at Reason declares “In addition, further research using human embryonic stem cells is needed to validate these results.”
    http://www.reason.com/blog/

  • Timothy

    Hi, my name is Timothy Tang and I have just completed the book, “Real answers to The Meaning of Life and finding Happiness”.

    Many people feel that the interpretation to The Meaning of Life question is too subjective to have any definite objective answer but I have managed to formulate a real and objective answer to the ultimate question of human existence.

    I have made a blog that introduces the book. Do check it out.

    http://ultimatemeaningoflife.blogspot.com

  • str1977

    What I am missing in this article and this posting (“takes adult cells and regenerates them back to the pluripotent state. It’s quite similar to embryonic stem cells”) is the distinction between “pluripotent” (able to develop into many kinds of cells) and “totipotent” (able to develop into all kinds of cells, or a fully developed human being). If the stem cells created by this procedure are “totipotent”, the procedure does not solve the ethical problem at all.

    Note, it is the ethical issue, not a “religious” issue as this is not a matter of religion but of ethics (though ethics of course might be formed by a religion).

    The “issue of what to do with all the embryos “left over” from IVF” is actually the question thugs are asking themselves. What to do now with those we have capture. The only ethical thing “to do” with embryos is bring them to birth.

  • Martha

    “should …the pro-life movement be vindicated in, as Thomson claims, “set[ting] the field back four or five years”?”

    And I suppose fradulent claims by South Korean researchers – unfettered by the eeeevil pro-lifers, I remind you – have no effect on this matter?

  • William

    Martha,

    Who said anything about evil pro-lifers? Let’s not turn this into an abortion debate please.

    There are many things that may have set the field back but that isn’t relevant to the point I was making. My point was that it’s strange to take credit for an advance when a scientist is claiming you slowed him down.

    My point was not an attack on pro-lifers but an attack on the spin offered by Ryan Anderson in his opinion piece.

    As I see the history of pro-lifers and this research:
    1. Campaign against embryonic stem cell research
    2. Embryonic stem cell researchers develop a method to induce pluripotent state in adult cells without using an embryo
    3. Claim that your stance on embryonic stem cell research is responsible for the new research

    Without researching embryonic stem cells, this new research would not have been possible. Some scientists are saying we still need to use embryonic stem cells to make progress toward IPS cells that can be used in therapy. So, how is this a vindication of a pro-life stance?

    Just to reiterate: I’m attacking spin and not the pro-life stance.

  • str1977

    “Without researching embryonic stem cells, this new research would not have been possible.”

    So what!?

  • William

    “So what!?”

    Stopping all embryonic stem cell research (as pro-lifers wanted) would have prevented this new method from being developed. So, the “entire pro-life movement” cannot be vindicated by this new development since they would have stood in its way.

  • str1977

    So the reprensible embryonic stem cell research was needed to achieve a goal that contradicts that earlier research.

    I don’t see how you can use this to bash pro-lifers. Rather, ethical principles, as expounded by pro-lifers, at least had the effect of reaching those researcher who didn’t have a problem with their research in the first place and logically could not have any moral reason for the new method.

  • William

    So the reprensible embryonic stem cell research was needed to achieve a goal that contradicts that earlier research.

    What goal? And how does this goal contradict earlier research?

    I don’t see how you can use this to bash pro-lifers.

    I’m not bashing pro-lifers. Your bias is leading you into misconstruing my argument completely. My argument is that it is too soon to declare “the stem cell wars” over and that one side has won.

    Rather, ethical principles, as expounded by pro-lifers, at least had the effect of reaching those researcher who didn’t have a problem with their research in the first place and logically could not have any moral reason for the new method.

    They wouldn’t have a moral reason for the new method but they do have many other good reasons to use the new method once it is improved.

  • Martha

    Walter, who said anything about abortion? It was you who raised the question of vindicating pro-lifers for setting back scientific research.

    Hardly sounds complimentary, does it?

    Oh, noes! Noble scientists engaged in life-saving work have been ruthlessly and brutally held back three or four years’ worth of research by President Bush and the pro-lifers! (I don’t much like President Bush myself, so I take umbrage at being lumped in with him, thangyuvermuch).

    No, I was noting the anguished yelps about “See? See?? The Koreans are roaring ahead of us because of your silly footling objections to handing over billions of wonga and tossing ethics out the window, and soon they will RULE THE WORLD!!!! (or even worse, this guy will be nominated for the Nobel ahead of me!). Oh – this amazing life-altering progress was all lies and fraud. Er, um, oh, well, never mind.

    But we still need the billions and the unfetteredness or else everyone in the world will turn blue in the face and drop down dead right this second!!!!!”

    Colour me unimpressed.

  • str1977

    “What goal? And how does this goal contradict earlier research?”

    The goal of stem cell research without killing human life. A goal expounded by pro-lifers and not by those researchers who did research that killed human life.

    “I’m not bashing pro-lifers. Your bias is leading you into misconstruing my argument completely.”

    Sorry, I half mistook you and half worded my point badly. Your posting sounded like criticism of pro-lifers for claiming this research and I think such criticism not entirely fitting, as pro-lifers did contribute the goal (see above).

    “My argument is that it is too soon to declare “the stem cell wars” over and that one side has won.”

    I totally agree. That was partly my point: those researchers have not suddenly adopted a ethical stand, as you yourself write.

  • William

    Walter, who said anything about abortion? It was you who raised the question of vindicating pro-lifers for setting back scientific research.

    I think you’re talking to me. Mollie posted a link to Ryan Anderson’s “excellent analysis” which states that this development was a “vindication” of the entire pro-life movement. I responded that this new development does not vindicate the pro-life movement. Then, you chose to represent me as attacking the “eeeevil pro-lifers.”

    Oh, noes! Noble scientists engaged in life-saving work have been ruthlessly and brutally held back three or four years’ worth of research by President Bush and the pro-lifers! (I don’t much like President Bush myself, so I take umbrage at being lumped in with him, thangyuvermuch).

    Ridiculing others is not the most civil way to make a point. Nevertheless, I wasn’t doing the lumping. Anderson did in his article: “it is not Bush alone, but the entire pro-life movement, that has been vindicated.”

    On the issue of the noble scientists being held back, my only point was that pro-lifers cannot be vindicated by this new development since this development was slowed down by the controversy they fomented.

    No, I was noting the anguished yelps about “See? See?? The Koreans are roaring ahead of us because of your silly footling objections to handing over billions of wonga and tossing ethics out the window

    Did I say anything even similar to that? If not, why respond as if I had?

    But we still need the billions and the unfetteredness or else everyone in the world will turn blue in the face and drop down dead right this second!!!!!”

    I’m sorry but did I say anything like that either? I did say that Thomson still thinks we need to do embryonic stem cell research but did I go off on an emotional rant about people dropping dead? No, since I’m not actually debating the pro-life vs. pro-research stances. My only point was that neither side is vindicated by this new development and that Anderson is wrong to claim differently.

  • William

    The goal of stem cell research without killing human life. A goal expounded by pro-lifers and not by those researchers who did research that killed human life.

    It depends on the definition of human life but that is getting off topic.

    Your posting sounded like criticism of pro-lifers for claiming this research and I think such criticism not entirely fitting, as pro-lifers did contribute the goal

    I am criticizing the spin that claims Bush and the pro-life movement are responsible for this new research. But, I’m not criticizing the pro-life stance on embryonic research.

    those researchers have not suddenly adopted a ethical stand

    Again, of course this depends on the definition of human life since many scientists don’t see an ethics problem with using embryos for research.

  • William

    Since I probably won’t check this post for responses again, I thought I ought to clearly reiterate my point.

    Mollie, showing her biases, recommended an opinion piece by Ryan Anderson as an “excellent analysis of the medical and political significance” of this development.

    I responded that this was not an excellent analysis since it makes at least two biased (and incorrect) points: 1) that the “stem cell wars are over” and 2) that Bush and the entire pro-life movement are vindicated.

    First, the stem cell wars are not over since scientists involved (or not) in this development say that embryonic stem cell research is still needed.

    From the Paging Dr. Gupta Blog:
    “Both types of research will continue – controversial and non-controversial. Without the knowledge gained from the last decade of embryonic stem cell research, these new stem cells couldn’t have been created Thomson told reporters.”

    Second, the entire pro-life movement are not vindicated by this development since they would have stopped the research that led to this new research if they could.

    As an analogy, if animal researchers developed a way to avoid using animals, animal rights groups could claim vindication but they would be wrong. They could claim “we were right since you don’t need to use animals” but this is ignoring the fact that the animal research was needed to create the new method and the new method probably requires us to use animals to refine it.

    Now, am I attacking pro-lifers by saying Anderson’s piece is biased and inaccurate? I don’t think so. I tried to avoid entangling myself in a pro-life vs. pro-research debate since GetReligion is about journalism.

    But, since others are wearing their biases on their sleeves, I might as well bluntly admit my biases. I am very pro-science (especially medical science) but there is an age where I think abortion is murder but not at the earliest stages relevant to the embryonic stem cell debate.