What is the Obsession with Embryonic Stem Cells?

This morning, I saw two articles in the paper about exciting new treatments using stem cells. The first is entitled "Stem cells help dogs with dystrophy". According to the article:

In promising new research, stem cells worked remarkably well at easing symptoms of muscular dystrophy in dogs, an experiment that experts call a significant step toward treating people.

"It's a great breakthrough for all of us working on stem cells for muscular dystrophy," said researcher Johnny Huard of the University of Pittsburgh, who wasn't involved in the work.

The second article is entitled "Scientists grow heart valves from stem cells" talks about using stem cells from amniotic fluid to grow replacement heart valves.

Scientists for the first time have grown human heart valves using stem cells from the fluid that cushions babies in the womb - a revolutionary approach that may be used to repair defective hearts in the future.

The idea is to create these new valves in the lab while the pregnancy progresses and have them ready to implant in a baby with heart defects after birth.

The Swiss experiment follows successes at growing bladders and blood vessels and suggests that people may one day be able to grow their own replacement heart parts - in some cases before they are born. And it is one of several radical tissue engineering advances that could lead to homegrown heart valves for infants and adults that are more durable and effective than artificial or cadaver valves.

"This may open a whole new therapy concept to the treatment of congenital heart defects," said Simon Hoerstrup, a University of Zurich scientist who led the work. It was presented yesterday at an American Heart Association meeting.

Both of these articles are excellent news for people who suffer from either muscular dystrophy or heart valve problems. It says a great deal about the skill, knowledge and dedication of the scientists who are working diligently to try to find new medical treatements for problems that have long plagued humanity. With additional time and effort the stem cell research in these cases may present treatments. But here's what equally important to note: in neither of these articles were embryonic stem cells used in the treatments. In the muscular dystrophy story, the article notes:

The study was published online Wednesday by the journal Nature. It used stem cells taken from the affected dogs or other dogs, rather than from embryos. For human use, the idea of using such "adult" stem cells from humans would avoid the controversial method of destroying human embryos to obtain stem cells.

The heart valve story, meanwhile, reports that the process is done as follows:

Amniotic fluid was obtained through a needle inserted into the womb during amniocentesis, a common prenatal test.

Fetal stem cells were isolated from the fluid, cultured in a lab dish, then placed on a mold shaped like a small pen and made of biodegradable plastic. It took only four to six weeks to grow each of the 12 valves created in the experiment.

Fetal stem cells from amniotic fluid are not embryonic stem cells, and no human being is killed in the process of the treatment. According to an article about this type of research in ScienceDaily from 2003 entitled Scientists Find Potential Stem Cells In Amniotic Fluid A New Source?

Research by Austrian geneticists has raised the possibility that stem cells[1] could be isolated from amniotic fluid the protective 'bath water' that surrounds the unborn baby.

Geneticist Professor Markus Hengstschläger and his team at the University of Vienna have isolated a subgroup of cells from amniotic fluid that express a protein called Oct-4 known to be a key marker for human pluripotent stem cells.

Reporting the findings today (Monday 30 June) in Europe's leading reproductive medicine journal Human Reproduction[2], Professor Hengstschläger stressed that the investigation was at an early stage. A lot more work had to be done to verify the finding, and tests were now under way to establish in which direction the cells could be differentiated. However, preliminary experiments have already provided evidence that they can be differentiated into nerve cells.

If, after extensive research these stem cells do prove to have similar potential to embryonic stem cells, ultimately it could reduce the need to use human embryos as a source, thus easing the tensions in this ethically controversial area.

Thus, once again treatments are being developed that seem to circumvent the need to use embryonic stem cells. The muscular dystrophy treatment seems to strongly suggest that the adult stem cells would serve the same purpose as embryonic stem cells are hoped to serve in this area. The heart valve treatment seems to show that one of the proposed alternatives to the use of embryonic stem cells, fetal stem cells extracted from amniotic fluid, will serve the role that embryonic stem cells were slated by the press to play.

In fact, as I have noted before, there are three things that need to be kept in mind about stem cell research whenever this issue is discussed.

1. As far as I know, no one has a problem with stem cell research in general. It's only embryonic stem cell research that is ethically problematic. Stem cell research using adult stem cells, fetal stem cells from amniotic fluid or one of the other alternative sources of stem cells are largely seen as completely unobjectionable.

2. Embryonic stem cell research, at minimum, offers ethical challenges. If the opponents of embryonic stem cell research (of which I am one) are correct, the only way to get the embryonic stem cells is to kill a human being. Sure, the human being is only in its embryonic stage of development, but it is scientifically and ontologically speaking a human being. Thus, it seems that if other alternatives can be developed, they should, at minimum, be explored fully before undertaking this type of research which every fair-minded individual should recognize causes serious ethical concerns in the eyes of many people.

3. While the research into embryonic stem cells is admittedly in its infancy, there have been absolutely no treatments developed using embryonic stem cells. Moreover, such treatments are years away with no promise of every actually arising. I recall that my fellow blogger, Layman, once analogized the search for cures with embryonic stem cells to the search for the fountain of youth, and he was right. Meanwhile, many treatments using stem cells from non-embryonic sources that serve the same function that embryonic stem cells are hoped to provide are popping up every few weeks. Thus, as research develops it appears more and more like embryonic stem cell treatments are phantoms while the real progress can be found in the non-controversial research into adult stem cells and embryonic stem cell alternatives.

So, I have to ask: what is the obsession with embryonic stem cells? Why are we pushing so hard to put money into this single line of morally questionable research? I don't know, but I have a couple of suspicions.

First, when I was in college, one of my professors told me that when you are talking politics to always follow the money. So, who is receiving the lion's share of the billions of dollars being funneled into embryonic stem cell research? Well, in California, the people behind Proposition 71 where the people voted to fund this type of research were apparently the people who most benefited. According to Rich Deem at in an essay entitled "Arguments Against Proposition 71: The California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative" at the excellent Evidence for God from Science website (footnotes omitted):

Individuals and special interest groups (from real estate and biotechnology companies) that stand to gain financially from Proposition 71 have contributed large sums of cash to the campaign. Robert Klein, president of real-estate development company Klein Financial, has since donated more than $1,000,000. Joseph Lacob, John Doerr, Joe Lacob and Brook Byers, partners with the firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (which funds several healthcare and biotech-related companies), contributed $500,000, $974,649, $500,017 and $460,000, respectively. William Unger of Mayfield Venture Capital (which also funds biotech companies) contributed $50,000, according to campaign finance records. George Rathmann, co-founder of Amgen and is now chairman of biotechnology company Nuvelo, has contributed $50,000. William Rutter, co-founder and chairman of Chiron, contributed $50,000. Another biotechnology executive, Gilead Science vice president James Rooney, has contributed $10,000.

Unbelievably, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative provides up to 300 million dollars for real estate development and facilities construction. In, fact "four real estate specialists" are called for in the initiative. This provision is virtually unheard of in funding of medical research grants. Established investigators already have research laboratories. These facilities are provided by the institution (usually provided by a university or biotech company). In the case of universities, these buildings are usually funded through donations. Therefore, any scientist worthy of funding for medical research already has a research lab. This provision of the initiative will probably be lining somebody's pockets, instead of funding medical research.

Second, I have to believe that the pro-abortion crowd has some hand in this somewhere. After all, the same arguments are being made that embryos are not human beings and their sacrifice is no big deal in both the abortion and embryonic stem cell arenas. If the proponents of embryonic stem cell research are able to convince the people to back this research, abortion-rights advocates can piggy-back on their victories to argue that the people don't see embryos as human beings worthy of protection. Certainly, the two are often tied together in discussions, and it seems pretty obvious that the loosening of restrictions on either are done only where people see the embryo as less than human.

Are there other reasons for this obsession that I'm missing?


Cross-blogged at Apologia Christi


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