Problems with Embryonic Research (Part I)

This month's National Geographic Magazine features an article about embryonic stem cell research entitled "The Power to Divide Stem Cells" by Rick Weiss. The article sets out the two sides of the argument about the morality of stem cell research as follows:

Most alarmed have been people who see embryos as fully vested, vulnerable members of society, and who decry the harvesting of cells from embryos as akin to cannibalism. They warn of a brave new world of "embryo farms" and "cloning mills" for the cultivation of human spare parts. And they argue that scientists can achieve the same results using adult stem cells—immature cells found in bone marrow and other organs in adult human beings, as well as in umbilical cords normally discarded at birth.

Advocates counter that adult stem cells, useful as they may be for some diseases, have thus far proved incapable of producing the full range of cell types that embryonic stem cells can. They point out that fertility clinic freezers worldwide are bulging with thousands of unwanted embryos slated for disposal. Those embryos are each smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. They have no identifying features or hints of a nervous system. If parents agree to donate them, supporters say, it would be unethical not to do so in the quest to cure people of disease.

So, to put the argument in favor of embryonic stem cell research in focus, it basically says: (1) treatments using embryonic stem cell hold greater promise than treatments utilizing adult stem cells; (2) yes, the process does end the "life" of the embryo but (a) it is small and insignificant and (b) chances are the embryo was going to be thrown out anyway.

It seems to me that the argument is a bit problematic in several ways. Looking at each of the parts:

Does embryonic stem cell research hold more promise for treatment of ailments than results using adult stem cells? This is an extremely difficult question to answer because of the notion of “promise.” Promise can mean “what is the potential upside.” In the case of embryonic stem cell research, the sky is apparently the limit. The National Geographic article describes the potential upside in the following language:

The dream is to launch a medical revolution in which ailing organs and tissues might be repaired—not with crude mechanical devices like insulin pumps and titanium joints but with living, homegrown replacements. It would be the dawn of a new era of regenerative medicine, one of the holy grails of modern biology.

The upside of embryonic medicine, if achievable, is huge! But alchemy in the middle ages spent countless hours of time fruitlessly attempting to turn iron or other common metals into gold. The upside of such endeavors was huge, too – riches beyond imagination. But the real question shouldn’t have been (and shouldn’t be) what is the potential upside, but how likely is it that the upside will be achieved? How do we judge whether the dreams are projected hopes or reality?

If early results are any indication, adult stem cells are much, much more likely than embryonic stem cells to result in treatments for diseases. At last count I saw, 56 treatments had come from the adult stem cell research, while only . . . ummmmm, let’s count carefully here . . . zero (0) treatments had come from embryonic stem cells. According to an article in the Telegraph entitled "Have We Been Oversold the Stem Cell Dream?", the results of research into embryonic stem cells, while still promising, is nothing to get excited about.

While some stem cell work, notably the use of bone marrow transplants (which contain adult stem cells), is routine, the use of embryonic stem cells is, well, embryonic. In the short term, they offer most potential as a means to study the cause of disease and to test drugs, not to treat disease. ‘Far from being a great success story, the use of embryonic stem cells probably is pretty limited and are likely to remain very limited for the time being for a number of very good scientific reasons,’ said [fertility expert] Lord Winston.

Equally importantly, the amount of private funding for embryonic stem cell lines has all but dried up (hence, the push for public financing of continuing research). Given the fact that most businesses in America – especially drug manufacturers – would happily invest in research if they thought it would result in a new line of medicines for which they could charge a significant amount of money, what could explain this lack of private funding for further research? Could it be that those most in-the-know on the possibilities that the stem cells will result in treatments are reluctant to throw the money down a possible sink hole?

Why might it be a sink hole? It appears that the research to this point have not pointed to the positive promise of embryonic stem cell research. Rather, like Anakin Skywalker, the embryonic stem cells tend to turn to the dark side and join the enemy in the attack. Rather than help the patients, embryonic stem cells bear a significant chance of turning cancerous and killing the ones that they are supposed to be helping. Again, from the Telegraph article linked above:

There is a theoretical risk posed by even a single embryonic stem cell among, for example, the nerve cells derived from embryo cells for transplant into a Parkinson's disease patient. The cell could turn into the wrong type of tissue or multiply to form a cancer consisting of a wide range of cell types called a teratoma, or a malignant tumour.

‘There are a lot of reasons to be very cautious about putting these cells back into people,’ said Lord Winston. ‘If you decide that you need to treat a heart infarct with 10 million cells, how are you going to guarantee that your population is absolutely pure and stable? You only need a few rogue cells to initiate a problem.’

Additionally, there appears to be a problem with the number of lines being insufficient to support the research needed. According to "Stem-cell debate myths" by Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune:

The biggest myth, though, is that scientists will be content with using existing, leftover embryos. The 11,000 embryos, according to the RAND study, would yield no more than 275 stem-cell lines. For the task of curing major diseases, an article in Scientific American last year said ‘hundreds of thousands’ of lines may be needed--which ‘could require millions of discarded embryos.’

Could it be that the promise seen by the advocates will eventually show up given enough time, research and (especially) money? Of course, it is possible, but a mere possibility is hardly the same as a strong possibility. It is also possible that aliens will visit our planet in the next eight months and deliver the cures to cancer to us, but I wouldn’t focus my efforts into funding SETI instead of research into the more productive area of adult stem cell research based on that mere possibility. Likewise, it may be possible that we figure out a better way to control the negative effects of embryonic stem cell research resulting in the “promise” that the advocates believe exist, but if that promise is too ephemeral, we should not favor it in place of the more profitable line of research that has achieved measurable results.

Thus, while I agree that there is promise, it appears that the promise is very distant and has little immediate hope of being realized? Next time, I will address part two of the argument: the process does end the "life" of the embryo but (a) it is small and insignificant and (b) chances are the embryo was going to be thrown out anyway.

Cross-blogged at Apologia Christi blogspot.


Weekend Fisher said…

I know, this is part of a series, and I hope I'm not just speaking about something you were bound to post next anyway. But here's another thing that bothers me. Let's say that the "promise" were a fact. Let's say that "the holy grail" of biology were reached -- that we really could prolong human life, in good quality, indefinitely and achieve something not too far from immortality by these means. I would still be against it, even as I breathed my own last breath. Why? Because of the price that is paid, an unending stream of other "potential" lives that were trashed so that I might continue mine.
BK said…
WF --

Of course you are right. That certainly will be part of the discussion in part II (coming soon to a blog near you . . . ).

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